Amber Woodward, an attorney for the federal government living in Dallas, TX (originally from the Kansas City area), recently had a run-in with her father-in-law when she called him "ornery". I'll let her tell her own story in a moment, but first I want to say that I personally never use "ornery" in a pejorative sense. In fact, I always use it to convey affection. For example, if I say "ornery little fellow" about a child, I mean that he is mischievous but loveable, and I'll go up and hug him after I call him that. If I say it about an animal (e.g., "ornery critter"), I intend to convey the notion that I respect it for its strength, agility, wiliness, etc., not that I despise it for being hard to handle. Even when I declare that someone is an "ornery old cuss", I usually want to let him know that I like him for being the curmudgeon that he is (cf. this Language Log comment [near the end, in red]).
By the way, I normally pronounce "ornery" with three syllables, but occasionally will lapse into two syllables ("orn-ree") when I'm relaxed or in a hurry. Oh, yeah, I'm from Ohio.
The Visual Thesaurus gives "cantankerous; crotchety" as first level synonyms for "ornery", and pronounces the word with three syllables. These seem to be standard for dictionary definitions of the word.
Now I'll let Amber speak for herself:
I am writing to you to point out a word whose dictionary definition and pronunciation I take issue with. No major dictionary that I have found thus far has documented a strong minority interpretation of the word. I plan to recommend an amended dictionary entry for this word, and I believe that reaching out to Language Log may help the cause. The word is "ornery."
As noted by the Online Etymology Dictionary, in 1816 the word "ornery" appeared to be an Americanized pronunciation of "ordinary" in the sense of "plain, ugly." NPR's "A Way with Words" documented the usage of "ordinary" in one of their episodes. By 1860, "ornery" had come to mean ill-tempered, disagreeable, or cantankerous. That definition is currently the only one I have found in modern dictionaries.
My interest in the word "ornery" arose when one day I called my father-in-law, a Mississippian, "ornery," to which he took great offense. I was confused by this, as I did not mean the label as an insult. A debate ensued, and we came to the conclusion that my definition of the word was entirely different from his definition. Upon consulting every dictionary we could get our hands on, he was vindicated, I was defeated, and I was made to apologize.
Eager to find support for my position, I decided to ask friends, family, and co-workers for their thoughts on both the meaning and pronunciation of the word. I have since conducted a detailed survey of my findings. Please let me know if you would like to see the results.
The summary of the survey is this:
Pronunciation: There is a near even split as to whether the word is pronounced "orn-er-ree" versus "awn-ree," with only a few people indicating "orn-ree" as their traditional pronunciation. No major dictionary has recognized the pronunciation "awn-ree." There did not seem to be a regional correlation with the pronunciation of the word, with the exception of Mississippi ("orn-er-ree") and Kansas ("awn-ree").
Meaning: The majority of the survey participants agreed that their definition of "ornery" falls in line with the dictionary definition, i.e. cantankerous, ill-tempered, disagreeable, stubborn, prone to anger. Several individuals aligning with this definition thought of the elderly and animals. In fact, though participants were not asked what animal they associated with the word, many voluntarily submitted an animal that embodied the definition, including horse, hog, mule, and alligator (the latter had the highest number of mentions, but that also corresponded to the individuals who knew the word from The Waterboy).
Alternative meaning: Although the majority of participants agreed with the dictionaries, a strong minority of participants had a completely different definition and had heard of no other. These participants, including myself, believe "ornery" to mean a good-spirited trickster, a cute yet exasperating individual, or someone who is mischievous (with a positive connotation). Many thought of a favorite and sweet wily grandparent or an adorable child who is always pulling April-fools-type tricks. The individuals who recognized this definition primarily came from the Midwest. Only a few participants recognized both the majority and minority definitions of the word. A few participants fell somewhere between the two definitions, i.e., a prankster but in the negative sense.
As one who has known only the pronunciation and meaning of "ornery" that is not recognized by any dictionary, I have an interest in creating awareness of my understanding of the "word." Perhaps Language Log could assist me in my quest to successfully recommend an amended or alternative entry in the dictionaries for the word "ornery."