A stem-to-stern review of 'stem'

English gets a lot of use out of this hardworking little monosyllable.

I've been as concerned as anybody about the recent upheavals and downheavals in the stock market and elsewhere in the economy.

But as I was reading the news a couple of weeks ago about the Federal Reserve's significant three-quarter-point cut in the federal funds rate, what struck me most was that both The Washington Post and The New York Times, in their respective stories on the move, both picked the same verb in their headlines:

"Fed Cuts Interest Rate to Stem Panic" was the Post's headline, and "Fed's Action Stems Sell-Off in World Markets" was the head on the story in the Times.

What a hardworking little monosyllable stem is.

It was being used in the transitive sense of "to stop, check," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. The verb is used especially often to refer to stopping the action of fluids, e.g., a plumber trying to stem a leak.

But Oxford makes a particular point that the stem of stemming a tide is an entirely different usage. The stem of a ship is the "curved upright timber or piece of metal at the bow of a vessel." From this stem comes "stem-to-stern review." When this nautical stem morphs into a transitive verb, it means "to urge the stem against, to make headway against" a tide or current or gale.

Stemming the tide is also used in a sense of holding back the tide, as in our initial sense of "stop, check." Thus I found a Japan Today article online about efforts to "stem the tide of foreign words flowing into the Japanese language." National Institute for Japanese Language, meet l'Académie française.

There is no need to use an imported foreign term like "riterashii" to express the concept of "literacy," according to the institute, because there's already a native Japanese word for it – although the article didn't say what it was. The piece also had the longest list of reader comments at the bottom than I can ever remember seeing. National Institute for Japanese Language, meet King Canute.

As a noun, stem is "the main body, usually more or less cylindrical, of the portion above ground of a tree, shrub, or other plant," according to Oxford. From this have branched many literal and metaphorical extensions – in botany (the stem of a leaf), genealogy and anthropology (the stem as the primal ancestor or founder of a family), linguistics (the triliteral or three-letter stem of a Hebrew word), calligraphy and typography (the upright strokes of a letter and a musical note are both stems), and even machinery.

Which brings us, in this political year, to the stem-winding watch. It was the advanced technology of its day (mid-19th century) – a watch that required no watch key to wind it. It became slang for anything superlative. Then the meaning narrowed to mean a rousing oration, especially a political one: "He delivered a real stemwinder at the convention in 2004."

Yet I can't help thinking that to allude to a watch in connection with a speech does not suggest sparkling oratory. If I'm checking my watch as I listen to a speech, I'm not totally engaged.

Another use of stem, or I should say, STEM, is as an acronym I've heard within Boston's educational establishment to refer to "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." This is a cluster of academic fields in which many experts feel that local populations of color and the poor are seriously underrepresented and in which students from other countries are eating America's lunch, as the expression goes. It's a sensitive enough subject as it is. Discussants all along the spectrum should be grateful to have a handy acronym that saves them 14 syllables every time they use it.

The lesson here: However great the tendency to blatherize language with unnecessary add-ons and polysyllables, we can still find a lot of uses for a single syllable.

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