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  1. the ascending axis of a plant, whether above or below ground, which ordinarily grows in an opposite direction to the root or descending axis.
  2. the stalk that supports a leaf, flower, or fruit.
  3. the main body of that portion of a tree, shrub, or other plant which is above ground; trunk; stalk.
  4. a cut flower: We bought roses at the flower market for 50¢ a stem.
  5. a petiole; peduncle; pedicel.
  6. a stalk of bananas.
  7. something resembling or suggesting a leaf or flower stalk.
  8. a long, slender part: the stem of a tobacco pipe.
  9. the slender, vertical part of a goblet, wineglass, etc., between the bowl and the base.
  10. Informal. a drinking glass having a stem.
  11. the handle of a spoon.
  12. a projection from the rim of a watch, having on its end a knob for winding the watch.
  13. the circular rod in some locks about which the key fits and rotates.
  14. the rod or spindle by which a valve is operated from outside.
  15. the stock or line of descent of a family; ancestry or pedigree.
  16. Grammar. the underlying form, often consisting of a root plus an affix, to which the inflectional endings of a word are added, as tend-, the stem in Latin tendere “to stretch,” the root of which is ten-.Compare base1(def 18), theme(def 5).
  17. Music. the vertical line forming part of a note.
  18. stems, Slang. the legs of a human being.
  19. the main or relatively thick stroke of a letter in printing.
verb (used with object), stemmed, stem·ming.
  1. to remove the stem from (a leaf, fruit, etc.): Stem the cherries before cooking.
verb (used without object), stemmed, stem·ming.
  1. to arise or originate: This project stems from last week's lecture.

Origin of stem1

before 900; Middle English; Old English stemn, stefn, equivalent to ste- (variant of sta-, base of standan to stand) + -mn- suffix; akin to German Stamm stem, tribe; see staff1
Related formsstem·less, adjectivestem·like, adjective


verb (used with object), stemmed, stem·ming.
  1. to stop, check, or restrain.
  2. to dam up; stop the flow of (a stream, river, or the like).
  3. to tamp, plug, or make tight, as a hole or joint.
  4. Skiing. to maneuver (a ski or skis) in executing a stem.
  5. to stanch (bleeding).
verb (used without object), stemmed, stem·ming.
  1. Skiing. to execute a stem.
  1. Skiing. the act or instance of a skier pushing the heel of one or both skis outward so that the heels are far apart, as in making certain turns or slowing down.

Origin of stem2

1400–50; late Middle English stemmen < Old Norse stemma to dam or Middle Low German stemmen


verb (used with object), stemmed, stem·ming.
  1. to make headway against (a tide, current, gale, etc.).
  2. to make progress against (any opposition).

Origin of stem3

First recorded in 1585–95; v. use of stem4


noun Nautical.
  1. (at the bow of a vessel) an upright into which the side timbers or plates are jointed.
  2. the forward part of a vessel (often opposed to stern).

Origin of stem4

before 900; continuing Old English stefn, stemn end-timber; special use of stem1; Middle English stampne, stamyn(e) apparently < the cognate with Old Norse stamn, stafn in same sense


verb (used with object), stemmed, stem·ming.
  1. to arrange the loading of (a merchant vessel) within a specified time.

Origin of stem5

1895–1900; variant of steven to direct one's course < Old Norse stefna to sail directly, aim, derivative of stafn stem4


  1. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, considered as a group of academic or career fields (often used attributively): degree programs in STEM disciplines; teaching STEM in high school.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for stem

Contemporary Examples

Historical Examples

  • Let us rejoice that one such partisan was now at hand to stem the torrent of abuse.

    The Spenders

    Harry Leon Wilson

  • There is one stream which I dread my inability to stem—it is the tide of Popular Opinion.

    The Grand Old Man

    Richard B. Cook

  • In his excitement the dominie had snapped the stem of his tobacco pipe in two.

  • Then one after the other the two tenders puffed away, packed from stem to stern.

    It Happened in Egypt

    C. N. Williamson

  • And the pick was only the stem of a kau-ling plant, to which a bit of brick had been fastened.

British Dictionary definitions for stem


  1. the main axis of a plant, which bears the leaves, axillary buds, and flowers and contains a hollow cylinder of vascular tissue
  2. any similar subsidiary structure in such plants that bears a flower, fruit, or leaf
  3. a corresponding structure in algae and fungi
  4. any long slender part, such as the hollow part of a tobacco pipe that lies between the bit and the bowl, or the support between the base and the bowl of a wineglass, goblet, etc
  5. a banana stalk with several bunches attached
  6. the main line of descent or branch of a family
  7. a round pin in some locks on which a socket in the end of a key fits and about which it rotates
  8. any projecting feature of a component: a shank or cylindrical pin or rod, such as the pin that carries the winding knob on a watch
  9. linguistics the form of a word that remains after removal of all inflectional affixes; the root of a word, esp as occurring together with a thematic elementCompare root 1 (def. 9)
  10. the main, usually vertical, stroke of a letter or of a musical note such as a minim
  11. electronics the tubular glass section projecting from the base of a light bulb or electronic valve, on which the filament or electrodes are mounted
    1. the main upright timber or structure at the bow of a vessel
    2. the very forward end of a vessel (esp in the phrase from stem to stern)
verb stems, stemming or stemmed
  1. (intr usually foll by from) to be derived; originatethe instability stems from the war
  2. (tr) to make headway against (a tide, wind, etc)
  3. (tr) to remove or disengage the stem or stems from
  4. (tr) to supply (something) with a stem or stems
Derived Formsstemlike, adjectivestemmer, noun

Word Origin

Old English stemn; related to Old Norse stafn stem of a ship, German Stamm tribe, Gothic stōma basis, Latin stāmen thread


verb stems, stemming or stemmed
  1. (tr) to restrain or stop (the flow of something) by or as if by damming up
  2. (tr) to pack tightly or stop up
  3. skiing to manoeuvre (a ski or skis), as in performing a stem
  1. skiing a technique in which the heel of one ski or both skis is forced outwards from the direction of movement in order to slow down or turn
Derived Formsstemmer, noun

Word Origin

C15 stemmen, from Old Norse stemma; related to Old Norse stamr blocked, stammering, German stemmen to prop; see stammer


  1. die Stem (di) the South African national anthem until 1991, when part of it was incorporated into the current anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrikaSee Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika

Word Origin

C19: from Afrikaans, the call
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for stem


Old English stemn, stefn "stem of a plant," also "either end-post of a ship," from Proto-Germanic *stamniz (cf. Old Saxon stamm, Old Norse stafn "stem of a ship;" Danish stamme, Swedish stam "trunk of a tree;" Old High German stam, German Stamm), from PIE root *sta- "to stand" (see stet).

Meaning "support of a wineglass" is from 1835. Stem-winding watches (1875) were advanced and desirable when introduced, hence slang stem-winder "excellent thing" (1892). The nautical sense is preserved in the phrase stem to stern "along the full length" (of a ship), attested from 1620s. The verbal phrase stems from, first recorded 1932, American English, translates German stammen aus, probably from a figurative sense represented by English stem (n.) in the sense of "stock of a family, line of descent" (c.1540; cf. family tree, and German stammvater "tribal ancestor," literally "stem-father"). Stem cell attested by 1885.


"to hold back," c.1300, from Old Norse stemma "to stop," from Proto-Germanic *stamjan (cf. Swedish stämma, Old Saxon stemmian, Middle Dutch stemon, German stemmen "stop, resist, oppose"), from PIE root *stem- "to strike against something" (cf. Lithuanian stumiu "thrust, push"). Phrase to stem the tide is literally "to hold back the tide," but often is confused with stem (v.) in sense of "to make headway against, head in a certain course" (late 14c.), which is from stem (n.)).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

stem in Medicine


  1. A supporting structure resembling the stalk of a plant.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

stem in Science


  1. The main, often long or slender part of a plant that usually grows upward above the ground and supports other parts, such as branches and leaves. Plants have evolved a number of tissue arrangements in the stem. Seedless vascular plants (such as mosses and ferns) have primary vascular tissue in an inner core, a cylindrical ring, or individual strands scattered amid the ground tissue. In eudicots, magnoliids, and conifers, the stem develops a continuous cylindrical layer or a ring of separate bundles of vascular tissue (including secondary vascular tissue) embedded in the ground tissue. In monocots and some herbaceous eudicots, individual strands of primary vascular tissue are scattered in the ground tissue.
  2. A slender stalk supporting or connecting another plant part, such as a leaf or flower.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Idioms and Phrases with stem


In addition to the idiom beginning with stem

also see:

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.