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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."


  1. SlideSF said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

    The alternative pronunciation I am most familiar with is not "awn-ree" but "onnery". Something like honoree, but the accent on the first syllable. Perhaps that pronunciation would fit better with Ms Woodward's definition.

  2. CDG said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    Pronounced "onry" in western Maryland, similar to this classic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1mw4ImMUmQ.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    From Paula Roberts:

    I think this is an example of a word whose meaning has been changed through influence from the context in which it usually appears — like the list you gave.

    I've noticed several such words. One of them — moving the opposite direction, from positive to negative– is "pious," which at its core means something like behaving in a way mindful of god and religion — surely a good thing– but which has come to have the negative association of excessive interest in puritanical and strict religious observation, or even hypocrisy resulting from that tendency. Another word — this came up during SAT preparation sessions — is "anodyne," which means harmless, doing no harm, but which, through association with politically correct and similarly empty statements that could be said to be anodyne, now frequently is used to describe a statement or action that is (perhaps designedly) pointless and meant to placate.

    I also notice that when a word comes to sound old-fashioned, like "ornery," especially if it has variant pronunciations that locate it among the unthreatening folk, it loses its teeth, like most things that are seen as distant and harmless. I think that accounts for its change from the dictionary meaning to the kinder, gentler (more harmless) association it now enjoys with children, old people and animals.

    Another such word is "curmudgeon," which still has the dictionary definition of " a bad-tempered or surly person," but which, sounding old-fashioned and therefore harmless, now suggests a more charming version of itself. There used to be a New Yorker character in the About Town section called the Curmudgeon, for his mild, but gentlemanly, disparagement of modern ways. Nowadays a person who was truly bad-tempered or surly would be called a jerk or worse, and he wouldn't seem harmless.

    I was especially pleased to learn the origin of the word, and like contemplating the reasons an "ordinary" man might become "ornery."

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

    I'm British, and I associate the spelling 'ornery' exclusively with Huckleberry Finn, which I think is the only place I've seen it in print.

    I may have heard it many times, but if so, I think I've just taken it as an American pronunciation of 'ordinary' without any special connotations. I'm interested to learn that that is far from the case.

  5. Jim White said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

    By not taking your jab in the good-natured way that it was intended he demonstrated that he is in fact in the bad-natured state he claims to have taken offense at your having stated he is in. Apart from the issues of politeness involved here, I don't think there is actually any semantic problem.

  6. James said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

    I'm from Kansas, and the pronunciation I was brought up with is closer to "arn-ree". Likewise, it was (and is) used with this "minority" definition in my family and circle of friends. Before this article, I had never known it to be interpreted with a negative connotation.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    From Linda Greene (Philadelphia area):

    I have never thought of the word "ornery" as anything other than a slight. Interesting….

  8. DCBob said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    With Western Reserve roots in northern Ohio, I say "orn-ree" and mean 'cantakerous and crotchety." I don't believe I've ever heard Ohio relatives use it, though, so I suspect I learned the word living in northern Virginia.

  9. ErikF said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

    "Ornery" usually has the negative connotation to the people who I know in Canada (mostly in Alberta and Nova Scotia), although it is sometimes used in an affectionate manner. However, those who use it affectionately also have been known to use the terms "geezer" and "fossil" in the same way, so I'm not sure that they think of "ornery" as a positive word either but are just using it ironically!

  10. Brendan said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    There's a word in Beijing dialect, zhóur (which I see written as 轴儿), that has a little bit of the character of "ornery." As far as I can tell, it seems to fall somewhere between "set in one's ways" and "congenitally contrary, even when it acts against one's own interests." (I don't think it connotes "irritable," as "ornery" does.) The best match I've ever found for it is "thran" or "thrawn," a word used in northwestern Ireland.
    The OED gives it as "Sc." (so I suppose it came in via Ulster Scots) and gives the definition "2.2 fig. Perverse, contrary; cross-grained, ill-tempered, crabbed, peevish, cross." None of these is quite a match for "ornery" — or at least not for the way I hear the word — but they're in more or less the same neighborhood.

  11. Carin said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    I'm from Washington, DC, late 40s, with a Philadelphian family of origin, and my understanding was exactly as Victor describes in the post. "Lovably, amusingly grumpy" would be about right. It would never have occurred to me that it would be taken as a slight, but it would have been even farther from my mind that it might mean "cute + mischievous" without any element of grumpiness.

  12. Martha said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

    The only person I recall using this word when I was growing up was my dad (from Oregon). He uses the "awn-ree" pronunciation. I never saw the word in writing until I was at least in my late teens, and it was quite a revelation to me to see how it was spelled. I've since heard "or-ner-ee" pronunciation. I'm glad I've never had to utter the word, because now I'm confused about how to pronounce it. Luckily, I'm pretty sure the only person I'd use the word in conversation with is my dad, so I'd use his pronunciation. I understand the word to have the dictionary definition.

    It always catches my ear when I hear the song "Summertime" by Sublime (http://vimeo.com/26780513); he uses the three-syllable pronunciation, late in the song. (That seems to be using the dictionary definition also, but without any sort of affection attached.)

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

    An instance of popular-culture usage giving an eye-dialect alternative spelling is the title track (written by Steve Young) of the 1973 Waylon Jennings album "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean." The usage seems at least mildly pejorative in the context of the lyrics, i.e. by the last verse the narrator is praying for the Lord to "do right by me / You know I'm tired of feeling lonesome, on'ry and mean." On the other hand, the title was presumably intended to be catchy and/or positive-sounding in the sense of helping to sell records, but this was toward the beginning of Waylon's "outlaw" phase. Is being an "outlaw" a good thing or a bad thing? Well, you could say that it's the sort of pejorative which can also in certain contexts be used affectionately or admiringly, which brings us right back where we came in.

  14. Brendan said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

    …and now I see that "thrawn" comes from OE thrāwan, "to twist," which makes the match with 轴儿 all the more aesthetically/semantically pleasing. That's my day made, at least.

  15. maidhc said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

    A song example that has 3 syllables is The Lovin' Spoonful's "Best Friends":

    Yes I've heard that love that's lasting comes far and in between
    And how that childhood sweetheart gets ornery and mean
    They always say the honeymoon is where the romance ends
    But I've never heard of lovers that can be best friends

    John Sebastian is from the New York City area, I believe.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

    FWIW, "awn-ree" from the original post accounts pretty well for Waylon's pronunciation of the word (assuming the one live performance I sampled via youtube was typical). To the extent the spelling "on'ry" suggests the other side of the caught/cot divide (for those of us who don't have the merger), it's misleading.

  17. Lazar said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    @SlideSF: It would be pronounced "onnery" by a horse-hoarse-distinguishing non-rhotic New England speaker, of whom there are still a few.

  18. Ellen K. said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

    Wiktionary (which I like for pronunciation) gives /ˈɔːɹnɚi/, /ˈɔːnɹi/, so it does list the "awn-ree" pronunciation.

    It also has both the negative and positive definitions, both of which include "disagreeable" as part of the definition.

    My experience is that the word is generally used affectionately. But basically the same meaning whether affectionate or insulting.

    And definitely awn-ree. Actually, I can't be sure how familiar orn-er-y is as a pronunciation, since that's the spelling pronunciation.

  19. Jan said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

    My understanding of the word spans the good-natured to the perverse, but the proununciation nearly matches the spelling with 2-3 syls, but always two /r/'s. -Jan in Iowa (raised in California & Massachusetts)

  20. Jeff Carney said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    It's a favorite word in Utah, and almost always pronounced "onn-ree." Many of my students try to give it a spelling to match that pronunciation, too, partly because they cannot locate it in a dictionary, I suspect.

  21. Chris C. said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    It's not a common word in my personal lexicon, but when I do say it, it has three syllables. (Raised in New Jersey, living in California.) Whether it's affectionate or pejorative is contextual.

  22. Rebecca Hamilton said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    "Ornery" is a common phrase in north and west Texas, and the Oklahoma bordering area. In my experience, based on communications with members of my extensive family (all of whom are, without exception, ornery) in this geographic area, I believe I am qualified to make the following observations, based on facts within my expertise and personal knowledge: (1) ornery, like chifferobe and liniment, is an older term; (2) its usage continues in two contexts, one, by members of an older demographic (my cousin, Paul, for example, who is 85, blind, and very ornery) who wish to criticize someone "outside" the family, and, two, by younger persons wishing to convey delicately and precisely an issue involving someone or something they love. This may explain the disconnect your friend experienced. (3) We pronounce it "orn-erry."

  23. Craig Sailor said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

    The "onn-ree" pronunciation (and "disagreeable" interpretation) are featured prominently in a recent hip hop song by Common called "No Sell Out". This link jumps to the relevant portion of the song:


    The user who posted the video also provided a transcript of the lyrics. Interestingly, he transcribed the word in question as "awry", which would seem to require initial stress ("AH-ree") rather than the typical final stress to be a reasonable candidate here…is such a pronunciation attested?

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

    I think the "No Sell Out" lyrics are just mistranscribed, especially since adding the "n" for for a more plausible awn'ry better fits the rhyme with "laundry."

  25. The Ridger said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

    From Tennessee, and 59 myself, I've always heard (and said) it as "ornree" or "ornuhree" if it's emphatic, and its meaning is closer to willfully stubborn. I wouldn't say it's a real insult, but it's not a nice thing to call someone, either.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

    From a German friend:

    I generally agree with your interpretation of the word which I pronounce quite distinctly in three syllables. But I might have two slightly differing meanings for the word as well: the most common would be the description of a person like Andy Rooney, who always brought up the rear at the conclusion of the TV program "60 Minutes" . He was delightful in his curmudgeonly complaints about things which annoy most people.

    However, I'd use the word more readily when describing any one of my dogs or horses, or small children, when they had "their days" of just acting other than I would have liked/wanted. I see nothing in the word as being devious, a trickster, mischievious or any other negative meaning.

    In German I'd say "ihm sticht der Hafer" (akin to "feeling his oats") or "der hat seine Mucken". While the dictionary might call that "mood(s)", I had always understood it, to mean, like when describing a person for instance, that "he is a good guy but has his "Mucken", meaning he is of good character (in which sense mood is totally wrong) but DOES SOME THINGS HIS OWN WAY (as in being part of a person's regular mannerism).
    A perfect example could have been my Dad who was generally very elegant and charming, but there were certain things he would not tolerate, when he would suddenly acquire a demeanor or tone or words (still all VERY polite and correct), but sharp like Gallic humor. Dense people sometimes didn't take note which at times could be quite to their detriment.
    One of my "Mucken" is when I get thoroughly annoyed with someone that I take on a very stiffly British accent. To anyone that knows me also knows that that means "watch out".

    Not to confuse you, but the verb "mucken" is not so closely related to the noun, and is a form of grumbling, a TEMPORARY thing and not a mannerism.

    I can't see anything derogatory/negative in "ornery"….

  27. Eric P Smith said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    I have already confessed my naïveté about 'ornery': but if anyone had explained to me that "ornery means thrawn" then I should have understood its connotations immediately, for 'thrawn' is used in Scotland as well as Ireland.

  28. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    I'm from Texas. I've heard both pronunciations, but I think the two-syllable version is more common, partly because the word is usually used in an informal context. I use it affectionately for someone who insists on bucking the tide. It's usually said with a mix of approval and exasperation of someone who refuses to go along. We used to say of it of my father quite a bit.

    Though I've also heard the expression ornery and mean, and I suspect the use of "mean" makes that much less affectionate and complimentary.

  29. John said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

    For me, the two-syllable pronunciation is decidedly negative, but like many negatives, intonation or context can make it positive.

    I will pronounce it with three, protracted syllables when I want to make sure that the positive aspect is the one meant.

  30. Joe Fineman said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

    I was born in 1937, and my family was literary and lived in southern California & Vermont. I was surprised by *all* the definitions given. To me, "ornery" means something like perverse, contrary — disagreeing or disobeying for the sake of disagreeing or disobeying, or, more generally, responding in an unexpected way. R. P. Feynman seems to have had something of the sort in mind when the referred to "the ornery response of a gyroscope".

  31. Brendan said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

    @Eric P Smith – Not sure about connotations in Scotland, but I don't think I've ever heard "thran" being used in anything other than a derogatory sense — whereas at least in my idiolect (Philadelphia, plus interference from Ireland and years of living in a sort of Globish environment in China), "ornery" implies a sort of exasperated affection or admiration.

  32. Charles in Vancouver said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    Canadian here, grew up in the Toronto area. 100% always knew the word as 3 syllables but it does have a distant outdated ring to it. Agree with the other CDN upthread.

    This is a rather obscure song but the word "ornery" always makes me think of the 1999 song "Swing" by Ani DiFranco who grew up in Buffalo, NY.

    The lyrics, which are set to a playfully jazzy backing track you would not expect:

    Are you weary as water
    In a faucet left dripping
    With an incessant sadness
    Like a sad record skipping
    And an ugly and ornery
    And shadowy dread
    Lurking like a troll under the bridge
    Between your heart and your head

  33. Charles in Vancouver said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    (and Ms. DiFranco definitely pronounces it with 3 syllables)

  34. cyberiagirl said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 2:12 am

    I'm Australian. I've only heard it or used it in the three-syllable version, with the tone of endearment attached. Kind of feisty/cranky/spunky.

  35. Thomas Widmann said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 2:59 am

    For what it's worth, the Collins English Dictionary (written in Scotland) marks it as US and Canadian and lists three senses: (1) stubborn or vile-termpered; (2) low, treacherous; (3) ordinary.

  36. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 4:15 am

    The ornery "loveable curmudgeon" is a big cliché. The "semantic prosody" of words shifts with the sentimental cliché of the old mean guy who is really loveable on the inside. That is the conceit behind endless television episodes and movies like "Cranky Old Men."

  37. Mark Etherton said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 7:33 am

    For me, a BrE speaker, 'ornery' is exclusively US, and equally exclusively negative: as the OED puts it 'commonplace, inferior, unpleasant; (now) esp. mean, cantankerous, contrary'. However, as Jonathan Mayhew points out, the cantankerous old man trope can be flattering; there was a British TV serial 'Grumpy Old Men', described by Wikipedia as 'a number of well-known middle-aged men talking about any issues of modern life which irritate them, from the proliferation of excessive road signs to unnecessary and overly-loud mobile phone conversations'.

    As for 'thrawn', I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Thrawn Janet'.

  38. KathrynM said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 7:58 am

    The "ordinary" sense still survives in the folk hymn "I Wonder as I Wander"; having grown up (mostly) in upstate New York, the child of Texan parents, I was startled by "For poor or'nry people like you and like I" the first time I heard the hymn, but the meaning was pretty clear from context.

    I use the two-syllable pronunciation, and would use it with Joe Fineman's connotation–perverse and stubborn for the sake of being perverse and stubborn–but would hear or read it with almost any of the meanings listed here, depending on context.

  39. J.L. Barnes said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    Southern Indiana resident here, my mom's side of the family, from the rural-ish part of Louisville, KY, always pronounced it "awnry," so much so that until I was 12 or 13 years old, that's how I thought it was spelled.

  40. Brian T said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 8:36 am

    Thanks for the "I Wonder As I Wander" callout, KathrynM. Every December, I wonder as I hear that song. The rhythm (and usually the printing of the lyrics) requires a two-syllable pronunciation of "orn-ree" or "on-ree," so it tends to sound like "ornery" but the context ("I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus our savior did come for to die for poor on'ry people like you and like I") requires the meaning of "ordinary." (It would seem comical if, when limited to two adjectives to describe the mass of humanity, the logical choices were presumed to be "poor" and "ornery.")

    The clash of sounds and meanings is often intensified by the nature of the performance. Its folk status is inescapable, what with "come for to die" and "like you and like I," but it is often sung in arrangements that are far more refined and genteel than the song's diction naturally calls for. Chanticleer sings it with elegant, quasi-British roundedness, carefully articulating the syllables of "orn-ree."

    Other performers are uncomfortable labeling all of humankind as "ornery" but also unwilling to cram four syllables of "ordinary" where "on'ry" is accustomed to go. You'll find substitutions such as "lonely" and "lowly" and even "only," which makes no sense but was still evidently preferable to "on'ry." Julie Andrews does a hauntingly orchestrated duet with herself (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywQaYDwk0Gw) in which she changes "on'ry" to "simple."

  41. G Jones said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    From the upper midwest, mid 30s. Only ever thought/used/heard the "positive" connotation, a spot-on synonym for "silly."

  42. Eric P Smith said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 9:57 am

    @Mark Etherton: I didn't mention RLS's Thrawn Janet because my understanding is that in that story 'thrawn' is used literally, meaning physically twisted, rather than in any character sense. "For there was Janet comin’ doun the clachan – her or her likeness, nane could tell – wi’ her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has
    been hangit, and a girn on her face like an unstreakit corp."

  43. RP said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    The OED recognises a similar shift with "rascal" and "rogue". For instance, "rascal" once meant (and can still mean) "an unprincipled or dishonest person". But for hundreds of years it's also had another definition: "a mischievous or cheeky person, esp. a man or child. Freq. as a playful or affectionate term of reproof".

    There must be a lot of terms that have this kind of dual meaning.

    To get it into dictionaries, you would want to find recorded examples of the playful or non-negative meaning – examples where it was clearly not intended in a derogatory way – and then draw them to the attention of the lexicographers. Historically the OED insisted that examples be found in printed material, but I think I might have read that the policy is more flexible in our digital age.

  44. RP said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    @Brian T,
    I wasn't aware until today that "ornery" meant anything other than "ordinary" – but I am a BrE speaker.

    However, it occurred to me that the word "ordinary" can (or could) in fact be pronounced as two syllables if needed to replace "on'ry". You could say it as "ordnry". True, we don't normally begin English syllables with the consonants "nr", but it seems perfectly easy to pronounce "nr" at the start of a syllable, with no need for a vowel between the two consonants. (It's still going to be longer in phonemes than "on'ry", though. But no more phonemes than "simple". I make "simple" six phonemes, or possibly five if the schwa is swallowed. "Ordnry" would be five phonemes, for a non-rhotic speaker at least "On'ry" is presumably four phonemes.)

  45. GeekGirlsRule said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    We've always pronounced it "awn-ree" in my family and while it does mean cantankerous or crotchety, it means it in a warm-hearted, fond way. As in, you would never call someone you didn't ACTUALLY like or have some affection for ornery. Ornery is reserved for difficult people in your life that you love, but are exasperated by.

    Region: Michigan

  46. Rodger C said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    The author of the notorious French translation of Twain's "Celebrated Jumping Frog" rendered "ornery" as "ordinaire" and then had to modify the rest of the sentence to try to make it make sense.

  47. Brian T said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    I wasn't aware until today that "ornery" still DOES mean "ordinary" — the nearest dictionary (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, 11th ed.) notes "ordinary" in the etymological ancestry but doesn't include it even as an archaic or alternate definition. The only definition is "having an irritable disposition : cantankerous." In looking at shades of meaning among "cantankerous," "irritable," "cranky," and "ornery," I discover that I perceive the first three as passing moods but I perceive "ornery" as a chronic personality trait.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Have we reached a consensus that the word has semantically evolved more or less like this?

    1. ordinary (plain, ugly) –> 2. commonplace, inferior, unpleasant, mean, ill-tempered, disagreeable, cantankerous, crotchety, stubborn, irascible, willfully stubborn, perverse, contrary, treacherous, vile-tempered –> 3. cute but exasperating, naughty, mischievous, wily, tricksterish, feisty, adorably cranky, spunky

    We must observe, however, that there are sharp regional differences in the way the word is used and that all three of the main senses of the word (especially the latter two) are still operative among different groups, though some individuals may employ two or more of the senses depending upon context. I belong to the group that only uses the word in an affectionate manner. I inherited this usage from my father and mother, both of whom grew up and lived in Stark County, Ohio.

    No matter what, "ornery" has come a long way from its ordinary, humble beginnings!

  49. Derek said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    Growing up in North Carolina, I can only recall hearing the three syllable pronunciation and it is used in the negative sense.

  50. Shawna said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

    I grew up hearing my dad (now almost 80) use the word mostly in a negative context. I grew up in rural southern Idaho. My dad's grandparents, who homesteaded our farm, were from Iowa. I suspect he got the word from grandparents and parents. He pronounced it 'awn-ree' and used it negatively mostly for animals, e.g. an 'awn-ree bull' or dog. He occasionally called a person, who was being particularly disagreeable, an 'awn-ree cuss'. If one of my male contemporaries was being mean to me or my sister, he would label that boy an 'awn-ree kid'.

  51. Dave Empey said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 1:35 am

    And now I know (or do I?) what Tolkien meant when he described dwarves as a "tough, thrawn" race.

  52. PaulB said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 2:54 am

    My grandfather – born (in 1920) and raised in Mississippi, moved to Kansas after the war – used ornery (orn-ree) only affectionately (usually toward us grandkids). The word didn't survive into my mother's generation in our family. I had no idea there was a pejorative dictionary definition/regional intepretation of the word.

  53. hanmeng said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 9:25 am

    adjective American often humorous
    quick to argue or become annoyed with people

    He's all right, just a bit ornery in the morning.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

    Metro (8/8-11/13), p. 36 "The Word", by Alexandra Cavallo — "Bieber brawl": "…wrestling with another gang of ornery tykes, on a playground somewhere."

  55. the father in law said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    i was not as offended as some people thought, but Amber (my daughter in law) got very ornery during this entire exercise

  56. Rhoda said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 2:11 am

    As an English woman I've seen the word a couple of times (three syllables) and just guessed it meant someone ordinary who was pretty thick skinned and had their mind set on their opinion already.

  57. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    @the father in law said

    May we assume that you're using the word "ornery" in the sense that Amber is accustomed to? Or do you mean it in the sense that you are accustomed to?

  58. davidly said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    Context and tone are key. Sounds like Ms. Amber may have inferred the wrong meaning somewhere along the way after having heard it used ironically whenever she heard it used at all. It's entirely possible that affected the tone she struck with her – let's face it – ornery father-in-law (o I'm sayin' no harm, no foul in this case).

    But just because it's possible relieve some negative connotation with clear lighthearted intent does not change the meaning of the word, in my opinion.

    I'm mean, I've heard "son-of-a-bitch" used often enough as a term of endearment by those incapable of expressing sincere affection, but I don't think we're ready to add the definition "good friend" into the lexicon because of it.

    What I'm saying is, strike the right tone and you can change the meaning of anything. I recommend that Ms. Amber give the ol' awnry fella a loving pinch on the cheek the next time she says it and leave the lexicographers alone.

    ((I grew up pronouncing it awnry, too. And I'm a big-city Hoosier.))

  59. Doreen said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 2:30 am

    A fresh citation spotted in the wild — and in a UK source, no less (not sure whether the journo came up with the wording himself or lifted it from his source):
    "[Neil] Young once said that being sued by his new record label for making records that were 'not commercial' and 'unrepresentative' was “better than a Grammy” because it cemented his ornery maverick reputation."

  60. Jake Nelson said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    Always amazes me so many things come up here that I would never have thought could be in question. Reminds me how much is connotation and context.

    Ornery is a very common word in my experience, but I'd never have seen a connection with "ordinary"- the two sound completely different. I'm from Minnesota, and not to be rude, but we pronounce all the letters in a word and find it very strange when others don't. Ornery is 3 syllables "or-ner-y", maybe slurred to 2 as "orn-ry". Ordinary is 4 syllables "or-din-ar-y" or maybe "ord-'n-ar-y". Which is not to say I don't believe the derivation, it's just completely foreign.

    I'd say stubborn, grumpy, grouchy, tendentious, etc… a strong sense of "a mule with feet planted firmly in the ground, actively fighting any attempt to move it", "a dog with something in its mouth it won't let go no matter how hard you try to take it away".

    The list above including "cute, naughty, mischievous, wily, tricksterish, feisty, adorably cranky, spunky" doesn't jive with my definition (and that of those I know) at all, it's almost an antonym. It can be said affectionately, but there's no sense of joking or "twinkle in the eye" at all, it's just stubborn intransigence.

  61. Doreen said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    @Jake Nelson – I'm originally from Minnesota too, and I agree wholeheartedly with everything in your comment. I remember my mother occasionally — okay, maybe "often" would be more accurate — exasperatedly telling me to quit being so ornery when I was being crabby or obstinate, and I'm certain she didn't mean it in the "cute" sense.

  62. Dave Freer said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

    Writing from a small island of the south coast of Australia, mostly settled by Scots/Irish folk (where the language and most other things are happily set in a far earlier age) – the term 'ordinary' – is widely used, particularly about the weather. I took it as a reflection of the local habit of total understatement – 'It is a bit ordinary out there' means hailstorms and a howling gale at least, just as 'I'm feeling a bit crook' means they'll be burying me tomorrow. And 'Not bad' means 'absolutely marvelous', something I came across in rural Scotland too. I have to wonder – given the popularity of the word in the US and sector of society it seem to come from, whether it has its origins in the same habit of understatement?

  63. Duane Vore said,

    November 5, 2013 @ 9:22 am

    I grew up with Amber's definition, and knew no other until recently. Impish, mischievous, frisky.

  64. Carly said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

    I am in my 30s and I am from Delaware. I agree with Amber. Until today, I never realized that the true definition was negative. My son received the word ornery on his daily communication sheet from daycare. I know for a fact that the child care workers that care for my son were using it in the same context that Amber did. I as well use the word ornery as meaning "a good-spirited trickster, playful or mischievous."

    Guess I need to find a new word……..

  65. Helen McKinley said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 2:27 am

    My sister-in-law called me ornree just the other day and I took it as a compliment – mischievous and engaging. How did I live this long without knowing the original meaning of this word?? Northern Delaware-born and bred

  66. Olive P said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

    I'd weigh in, having just found this thread.

    I'm from a long line of Scots-Irish in North Carolina, and we hit our "R"s like we're taking a huge gulp of water. I've always heard "ornery" with three syllables, with the middle one barely used, but present, like "ORR-nu-REE". It does mean cantankerous or ill-tempered, but usually with a lesser degree of character judgement or severity, and occasionally with a case-specific usage. An ornery man could be easily irritated, but also easily dissuaded from being a grump. Or a woman could just be feeling ornery one day because things just weren't working out well and she was fed up.

    I've never understood it to be an outright insult, but if the person you're using it about is in front of you, and if they're feeling ornery they'll probably take issue.

  67. Jeff Shirley said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:05 am

    The way my day always used it was like calling somebody "mischievous." 2 syllables – Missouri

  68. Jeff Shirley said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:09 am

    At least I think it was two I can't remember. Maybe 3 for emphasis – On-e-ry!!!

  69. Jayne said,

    May 14, 2014 @ 7:15 am

    My husband and I agree that growing up, our exposure and use of the word ornery was that of mischievous affection and usually aimed to describe a teaser/jokster in a positive endearing sense. We are from opposite areas of the US, CA and OH.

  70. Linda Foster said,

    July 5, 2014 @ 8:32 pm

    I was not aware of the negative connotation given to the word "ornery" until I looked it up in the dictionary today and was completely blown away by the formal definition. My grandmother and parents both used the phrase to mean "a cute yet exasperating individual, or someone who is mischievous (with a positive connotation)," as noted above by Amber Woodward. We are all from the Maryland area, and I have never encountered someone using the word in a negative way. It is often used affectionately to describe a child who is a handful, so to speak, and the three syllables are not always heard distinctively.
    Thank you for this enlightening post – I was beginning to think I was in the Twilight Zone after reading the 'official'definitions in online dictionaries!

  71. Jake said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 11:14 am

    I lived the first twenty years of my life in South Texas (near Corpus Christi) and have mostly lived in the Texas Panhandle (about 540 miles, or 8 hours away) for the remainder.

    They are like two different worlds… which somehow have the same [playful/endearing] meaning for ornery.

    The people on my father's side have been in Texas for a long time, with some living here before the Civil War, and others coming to join them after (from New York, of all places).

    My mother's side is Cajun, and my grandparents came to East Texas (separately) from Louisiana not knowing any English… so they had to have picked it up here.

    I never thought too much about it, but I heard all three pronunciations growing up:

    1.) "orn-er-ree"
    2.) "awn-ree"
    3.) "orn-ree"

    I've even heard (possibly a variant of #2) "on-ry". The curious thing about this particular pronunciation is that with #2, the emphasis I've always heard was clearly on the first syllable ("AWN-ry").

    With this pronunciation, it's hard to say… I'm inclined to say the emphasis is even ("on-ry"). If the emphasis was on the latter ("on-REE" or even "awn-REE") it would have similar emphasis to a French pronunciation of Henri! :-)

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