Victor Mair has a very interesting Log post about the word ornery, quoting a correspondent who got into trouble for using the word affectionately (as she thought) and having it taken as an insult. There are two issues: is the dictionary meaning (cantankerous, ill-tempered, disagreeable, stubborn, prone to anger) that caused the sense of insult outdated, or does the more modern sense (cute yet exasperating, mischievous) simply coexist with it? And how do you pronounce it? I agree with Mair, who says:
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 […] 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.
There are a lot of good comments; the first one points out an alternative pronunciation: “The alternative pronunciation I am most familiar with is not ‘awn-ree’ but ‘onnery’.”