or·​nery | \ ˈȯr-nə-rē How to pronounce ornery (audio) , ˈär-; ˈȯrn-rē, ˈärn-, ˈȯn-, ˈän- \
ornerier; orneriest

Definition of ornery

1a : having an irritable disposition : cantankerous an ornery old man Telling her that would have been an invitation to getting my head chopped off, because she was a mean, ornery number until the day she died.— John Gregory Dunne
b : difficult to deal with or control an ornery mule … once made word processors so ornery that they caused secretaries to collapse in tears …— Bro Uttal … a bout with walking pneumonia and an ornery case of poison oak.— Paul Francis
2 chiefly Midwest : having or showing a playful tendency to cause trouble : mischievous an ornery smile It had been fun to play a trick on those ornery boys. They were not bad boys: just wild things full of vim and vinegar who were trying to fill their time and show off.— Connie Leonard Geron … invited me to come take pictures at a little family tradition they have … A shaving cream war. They have a large family; so there were tons of kids of all ages there. I think what I loved most about this was the fact that the adults got just as ornery as the kids.— Rebecca Haines

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Other Words from ornery

orneriness noun

What's the History of ornery?

Readers who are familiar with one of the more common senses of ornery ("irritable") might well be surprised to learn that the word is an alteration of the word ordinary, as this root word has little to do with feelings of peevishness. Yet this is the case, and there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for how this meaning came about.

Ornery was first used in American regional speech in the beginning of the 19th century as a simple variant of ordinary, and for some while it had the same meaning. Soon enough, however, it began to take on some of the more negative aspects of ordinary. It was used to describe things that were common, and especially common things of inferior quality. Next, it developed a sense synonymous with lazy. Those lazy folks dubbed "ornery" were also apparently easily annoyed and touchy. By the end of the 19th century ornery had taken on its now-common meaning of "cantankerous."

Examples of ornery in a Sentence

Based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit tells the true story of an ornery, undersize, beaten-up Thoroughbred who becomes a champion in the 1930s. — Lev Grossman, Time, 21 July 2003 Critics have compared his work to Faulkner's. And like Faulkner, McCarthy is an acquired taste as well as a palate cleanser. He's a stubborn, ornery writer, known for his ornate sentences, arcane vocabulary, casual disregard for standard punctuation and untranslated bits of foreign dialogue that offer little in the way of a narrative compass to guide readers along. — Sara Mosle, New York Times Book Review, 17 May 1998 I'm getting more and more ornery in my old age. an ornery old man who always yells at the neighborhood kids to keep off his lawn
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Recent Examples on the Web The ornery Frank will always be remembered; so, too, should Stiller, the sweet thespian and consummate professional who brought him to life. David Sims, The Atlantic, "The Sitcom Dad Who Made Grouchiness Into an Art Form," 12 May 2020 After their 114-112 defeat, the Celtics have a right to be ornery with the officiating, which was awful in the final two minutes with some pivotal and confusing calls. Gary Washburn, BostonGlobe.com, "No excuses, the Celtics let this game slip away," 23 Feb. 2020 Among them is a romp of ornery North American river otters, who spend their days climbing on their rocky, multi-level habitat, splashing in a cool stream and waterfall, tussling with fellow inhabitants, and gliding gracefully underwater. Lindsay Lambert Day, Condé Nast Traveler, "These Wildlife Webcams Will Cure Your Cabin Fever," 18 Mar. 2020 In a quiet moment like this, the couple’s comedy dynamic is razor-sharp and infectious: Jo Harvey is proud, effusive, exuding love and warmth; Terry is her ornery inverse. John Lingan, Washington Post, "Terry Allen Finally Gets His Due," 29 Jan. 2020 Corey Crawford had his second strong start in row, stopping 29 shots and getting a bit ornery while doing it. Jimmy Greenfield, chicagotribune.com, "Blackhawks fall 3-2 in a shootout after blowing a 2-goal lead for their 1st loss to the Penguins since 2014," 9 Nov. 2019 The show is a living, breathing valentine to the greatest decade, complete with all the classic ’80s sitcom archetypes: the doting mother, the ornery father, and the hijinks-prone kids. cleveland, "Stream this: Top 5 comedies to binge right now," 19 Mar. 2020 The bifurcated plot revolves around a pair of ornery old men. David Segal, New York Times, "Season 5, Episode 5: ‘Dedicado a Max’," 17 Mar. 2020 There was the time we were nearly trampled to death by an ornery moose on the Colorado River. Joe Cermele, Field & Stream, "Is This Lake the Best New Bass Fishing Spot in Mexico?," 18 Mar. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'ornery.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of ornery

1849, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for ornery

alteration of ordinary

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Time Traveler for ornery

Time Traveler

The first known use of ornery was in 1849

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Statistics for ornery

Last Updated

25 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Ornery.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ornery. Accessed 4 Jun. 2020.

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More Definitions for ornery


How to pronounce ornery (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of ornery

US, informal + often humorous
: easily annoyed or angered
: difficult to deal with or control


or·​nery | \ ˈȯr-nə-rē How to pronounce ornery (audio) \
ornerier; orneriest

Kids Definition of ornery

: becoming angry or annoyed easily

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More from Merriam-Webster on ornery

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for ornery

Spanish Central: Translation of ornery

Nglish: Translation of ornery for Spanish Speakers

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