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Stem-winding and Spellbinding Sentences (minicast)

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A recent article in The New Yorker magazine about the late writer David Foster Wallace has Martha musing about Wallace’s stem-winding sentences, and the word stem-winder.

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Recently The New Yorker magazine ran a profile of the writer David Foster Wallace, who died last year at the age of 46. The article included a line that I think Foster himself might have appreciated. It went like this: “He was known for endlessly fracturing narratives and for stem-winding sentences adorned with footnotes that were themselves stem-winders.”

So what’s a stem-winder?

Stem-winder goes back to the mid-19th century. It refers to an invention that was as nifty and state-of-the-art then as the coolest iPhone apps today.

Think back to the days of pocket watches. In the really old days, people had to wind a watch the same way they wound clocks. They used a little key. Not only was that a hassle, those keys were easy to lose.

In the 1840s, a watchmaker in Switzerland perfected a different way to keep a watch running. He put a knob on a tiny metal stem, and attached it permanently to the spring mechanism. People lucky enough to own these newfangled timepieces could throw away their key, and wind their watches whenever they wanted.

These fancy new stem-winders were some of the coolest gadgets around—so cool that by the late 1800s, people were applying the term stem-winder to mean anything excellent or first-rate. Over time, stem-winder also came to apply specifically to a rousing, impassioned speech or to a great orator. Perhaps that’s because a stirring speech or an energetic speaker could get folks in a crowd wound up, just like a watch.

Dictionaries apparently haven’t caught up with the fact that these days, many people use “stem-winder” in a different sense. Occasionally you’ll hear the term applied to a long-winded, boring speech—one so long and boring you’re tempted to look down at your watch and wind it. Or you would if it didn’t run on batteries.

And I have to wonder whether the notion of “winding,” in the sense of something “circuitous,” also influenced the magazine writer’s choice of “stem-winding” to describe those long, stirring sentences of David Foster Wallace.

By the way, if you’re a word lover, you’ll want to check out that article in New Yorker. You can read it here. You can also read an excerpt of the last novel Wallace ever wrote, which will be published posthumously in 2010.

What word or phrase has caught your eye lately? We’d love to hear about it. Send any stem-winders you find to words@waywordradio.org.

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