Word Improvisation

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang

Christian Clayton

"ALL politics," Will Rogers wrote in the presidential-election year of 1924, "is applesauce" (that was Jazz Age slang for "attractive nonsense"). In 1966 Ronald Reagan mused to an aide that "politics is just like show business" (show business being another kind of applesauce). The crucial primaries may now be over, but considerable applesauce lies ahead, especially in the form of speechifying.

When the former ambassador Alan Keyes turned out to be the only declared Republican challenger left standing before the advance of George W. Bush, a commentator ventured the opinion that Keyes would fight to the bitter end for the chance to deliver "a stemwinding speech" to the convened party faithful. Of the remaining candidates, Keyes undoubtedly employs the grandest rhetorical flourishes. But what has that got to do with winding stems? In the 1860s stem-winder referred to one thing only: the stem-winding pocket watch, a remarkable improvement in convenience over less costly predecessors, because it had no key to fumble with and misplace. Invented in England in 1820 by Thomas Prest, the foreman of a watch factory, and refined by the French watchmaker Adrien Philippe in 1842, the stem-winding movement, with its knurled winding button, became standard in America in the years after the Civil War. Satisfaction at being rid of a minor encumbrance -- the watch key -- eventually led to out-and-out linguistic recognition that the keyless pocket watch represented a new level of practical excellence. By the 1890s stem-winder was used to refer to anything or anybody possessed of superior qualities or ability -- as in "Ain't he a stem-winder?" The associated notion of winding up a spring probably added connotations of productive energy, both kinetic and potential.

Word meanings usually move from the more to the less specific, and that's what happened to stem-winder: it moved from specifying a kind of watch to describing anything sensational. But in the first third of the twentieth century its meaning began to narrow again.

Before use of the electric microphone became widespread, politicians had to shout to be heard. Relying primarily on oratory and the force of personality, a keynote speaker in particular was expected to exalt the crowd to a pitch of unbridled enthusiasm. Such a rousing speaker earned the label stem-winder. The word has lasted in politics (and watchmaking) long after its disappearance from general American slang. Since the 1940s, however, stem-winder has been applied more frequently to a rousing hortatory address than to the person giving it.

A rousing speech may also be referred to as a barn burner. The term was coincidentally an epithet for a member of the radical anti-slavery wing of the New York State Democratic Party during the 1840s, which was accused of figuratively trying to "burn down the barn just to get rid of the rats." A century later barn burner began to show up among bridge players to denote an extraordinary hand. Like stem-winder, soon came to refer to anything or anybody exciting, including a political speech.

No potpourri of political-speechifying terms is likely to omit filibuster, familiar to all Congress watchers as both a noun and a verb. It's not exactly slang -- politics being one of those professions, like law and nuclear physics, whose particular idioms tend to make their way promptly into standard English simply because there's no other way to get the idea across so succinctly. Filibustero is a Spanish word for "freebooter." The anglicized filibuster came into being in the early 1850s, to designate North American adventurers who were bent on seizing power in, for example, Mexico and Nicaragua. Filibuster quickly became a snarl-word for an extreme partisan trying to stall a legislative decision with delaying tactics such as a long-winded speech; the point of the comparison seems to have been the ruthless politics of both kinds of filibuster. By 1853 filibuster was a verb, and an indispensable part of the lexicon of both parties.

J. E. Lighter is the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Illustration by Christian Clayton.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; Word Improvisation - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 120.