Word of the Week: Stemwinder

DIPLOMACY and politics may not be a student’s cup of tea, but last week, the subject proved not to be such a bitter pill for YX, who sat through the entire article, Cuba Meeting Between Obama and Castro Exposes Old Grievances, one of numerous pieces the New York Times had featured around President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba.

YX came away learning a dozen new words, among which these were the highlights:

Embargo, he had guessed, was “to pillage”; invoke, “to annoy”; and stifle was “to talk about”—no, hang on, maybe it’s “to hate.”

You see why this type of uncertainty and guesswork makes for tough times at comprehension? The presumed meaning, on occasion, lends a twisted take on a text, sometimes turning it into a truly laughable situation that could go down in history as one of those embarrassing, bucket-over-the-head moments.

There is no way around this type of iffy situation when it comes to vocabulary other than to consult the dictionary. As a bonus, I like to supply a story to a word, some commentary that broadens the perspective behind it.

For “embargo,” YX learned that Cuban cigars were banned in the United States, and how my ex used to slip some into his home country from Singapore. Then, there was the myth—one I had heard long ago, must have been from a guy friend—that Cuban cigars were highly sought after because the women who made the cigars had rolled them lovingly on their thighs.

Our reading classes always get doubly interesting when opportunities for diversions such as these surface, moments disguised as pleasant story-telling. It piques the student’s interest, and it takes the tedium off no-nonsense, zero-stories, get-it-done-quick teaching.

Classes get even more interesting when I come across a word that even I don’t know. And that afternoon, that word was stem-winding, as it appeared in this paragraph:

“We agree that a long and complex path still lies ahead,” Mr. Castro said, smiling warmly at Mr. Obama at times, even when the American president teased his Cuban host about the Castro family’s penchant for stem-winding speeches. “What is most important is that we have started taking the first steps to build a new type of relationship, one that has never existed between Cuba and the United States.”

Let’s examine the word, as an adjective and a noun:

stem-winding (adj) N. Amer. informal
(of a speaker or speech) entertaining and rousing: a stem-winding female preacher.

stem-winder (also stemwinder) (n) US
1. (informal) an entertaining and rousing speech: the speech was a classic stem-winder in the best southern tradition.
2. (dated) a watch wound by turning a knob on the end of a stem.

I guess right here, we have a profound lesson on diplomacy: Do the tease, do the laugh, and in the most recent days, as President Obama has shown, do the tango.


I invite you to write to me at  viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.

  • Our previous “Word of the Week”: Equine Next up: Juggernaut
  • If you like our “Word of the Week” posts, you might also enjoy our “How to Pronounce It” series.

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