Definition of STEM-WINDER
: a stem-winding watch
[from the superiority of the stem-winding watch over the older key-wound watch] : one that is first-rate of its kind; especially : a stirring speech
My recollection of stemwinder used in a critical sense came from Bill Clinton's interminable speech in 1988 at the Democrat convention. Certain newspaper accounts of that referred to it as stemwider because those in attendance were checking and winding their watches thinking time had stood still as Clinton droned on in that nearly 40-minute monologue.
It's now clear that my recollection of what the word means is a secondary alternative, at least as explained in this article from World Wide Words:
The word is now used on occasion to imply that it is a speech or sermon so long, interminable and boring that it feels as though one needs to wind ones watch before it ends. This would seem to be an interesting example of a kind of folk etymology, in which a term that has become divorced from its roots and its context takes on a new sense by being analyzed afresh.
The term is still quite common (a newspaper database search found more than 100 examples in the past ten years). Most use it in the traditional sense, but not all. An example of the new sense appeared in the Washington Post on 10 July 2001:
The race is, in some respects, a giant popularity contest, and Hoyers somewhat ponderous speaking style and white-bread image may be a drawback. The question for Steny is, does he know when to stop? said one ally, referring to Hoyers stemwinder speeches.
In any event, I appreciate everyone's comment on this linguistic diversion from the more pressing events of the day. It just adds further proof that the most interesting and intelligent people on the planet congregate right here.