or·​nery | \ˈȯr-nə-rē, 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

In 2002, War Emblem nearly fell to his knees when the starting gate sprang open, and Baffert knew the ornery colt was done. Beth Harris, Houston Chronicle, "Justify ready for run at Triple Crown history in Belmont," 9 June 2018 This former Indian trading post on stilts overlooking Chokoluskee Bay served a small community of hardy and often ornery individualists. Bonnie Gross And Bob Rountree, OrlandoSentinel.com, "Explore Florida's Collier County: Ten Thousand Islands, the easy way," 6 May 2018 The largest grizzly, too powerful and ornery to be given even the limited freedom of a chain, was confined in an iron cage. Gary Kamiya, SFChronicle.com, "The original Grizzly Adams kept his bears on a chain in SF," 7 July 2018 As much as golfers want to think of it as their recreation opportunity, like going to the beach, golf is an ornery business. Tod Leonard, sandiegouniontribune.com, "Golf course closures say less about sport, more about a difficult business," 3 July 2018 DeWitt was the subject of a memorable 2016 profile in New York magazine, which told the tale of an ornery prodigy afflicted by unusually bad luck, and by her own inability to conform to the customs of commercial publishing. Adam Kirsch, The Atlantic, "The Anguished Comedy of Helen DeWitt," 25 June 2018 These things are ornery, and will even fight a human given the chance. Matt Simon, WIRED, "'Ninjabot' Reveals the Mantis Shrimp's Wily Snail-Hunting Scheme," 14 June 2018 As Seattle Slew approached his own Triple Crown destiny, there was no way for the ornery, greasy fast colt to supplant or surpass Secretariat in the hearts of racing fans. Childs Walker, baltimoresun.com, "Justify could make Triple Crown history Saturday, but will the world care as much as it did in 2015?," 9 June 2018 Hours later, Mendoza’s grandfather marched into the yard, waving a stick at the ornery cow he’d just purchased at an auction. Maria Sacchetti, Washington Post, "Going home after half a lifetime," 30 May 2018

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

1816, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for ornery

alteration of ordinary

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Dictionary Entries near ornery

ornate aphid







Statistics for ornery

Last Updated

10 Nov 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for ornery

The first known use of ornery was in 1816

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More Definitions for ornery



English Language Learners Definition of ornery

: easily annoyed or angered

: difficult to deal with or control


or·​nery | \ˈȯr-nə-rē \
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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to clear from alleged fault or guilt

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