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dictionary meaning (cantankerous, ill-tempered, disagreeable, stubborn, prone to anger) that caused the sense of insult outdated, or does the more modern sense (cute yet exasperating, mischievous) simply coexist with it?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’.”


  1. My parents used it mostly in a pejorative sense to mean cranky or irritable, and they pronounced it “ON-ry”. It took me a long time to connect that word to the proper spelling.
    I’ve heard it used in a more affectionate sense, but not in the correspondent’s “good-spirited trickster” sense. My only knowledge of that is secondhand, from a friend who lived in Missouri for a couple of years and was initially confused by it.

  2. For me, ‘ornery’ is negative, but only mildly, so I could easily use it as a friendly insult. Like calling someone a stinker or a brat.
    ‘Gee, ain’t I a stinker?’ — B. Bunny

  3. Charles Perry says:

    To me, ornery is still pejorative, with a suggestion of rusticity (the urban equivalent would probably be a-hole). But then I am deeply suspicious of tenderness toward curmudgeons, cranks, the feisty and their tribe. I think it just enables a-hole-ism.
    Interesting semantic parallel between ornery and meal.

  4. meal?

  5. Always heard it as orn-ree, usually followed by critter, or old bugger. Not nice at all, but often in a somewhat humorous way. Worse than cranky, it implied mean and hostile for no good reason, old and cantankerous. I would never use it with affection, only as a slightly funny way to tell someone they were out of line.

  6. Charles Perry says:

    Ahem.”Mean,” not “meal.” Both terms reflect a pessimistic (or realistic, as you might prefer) view of human nature.

  7. JohnEmerson says:

    When I was in Taiwan there was the same ambiguity of 顽皮, which means naughty/cute.

  8. mollymooly says:

    “bugger” is another: Americans can use it for impish children; Brits can’t.

  9. ahn-ry or awn-ry for me, though my dialect is r-ful. Always affectionate.

  10. My mother said orn-e-ree (but she was no native speaker); I don’t use the word, but would say on-ry if I needed to read it aloud or the like.

  11. John Cowan says:

    And, of course, the etymology is < ordinary, the semantic chain being ‘ordinary > inferior > lazy > cantankerous’.

Speak Your Mind