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 Those who prefer their spuds a little less ornery — though no less delicious — will want to give the pastrami short rib scalloped potatoes a try. Dominic Armato, azcentral, "This Scottsdale cafe is famous for its bagels. But its new dinner menu is fabulous, too," 15 Nov. 2019 And in the current case of the ornery offense, the issues are much bigger than him. Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times, "Column: Jared Goff and Rams’ offense are weighed down without Todd Gurley carrying load," 25 Sep. 2019 But from there, facing an LA lineup stacked with a half-dozen lefty hitters, Scherzer displayed the sort of ornery dominance that helped him win three Cy Young Awards. chicagotribune.com, "Max Scherzer’s gem lifts the Nationals past the Dodgers 6-1, setting the stage for an NLDS Game 5," 7 Oct. 2019 Without exceptions, Johnson’s sprawling cast comes together like an ornery ballet troupe, posing, leaping and flailing when the choreography calls for it, each performance calibrated to complement the other. John Wenzel, The Know, "Review: “Knives Out” is a dazzling, witty murder mystery in an age of franchises," 28 Nov. 2019 Pugh, so good in this year’s Midsommar and Fighting With My Family, brings welcome layers to her willful pigtailed Amy; Cooper, Odenkirk, and Meryl Streep, as the girls’ ornery Aunt March, duly make the most of their small turns. Leah Greenblatt, EW.com, "Greta Gerwig's Little Women is a warm blanket in a cold world: Review," 25 Nov. 2019 The Ducks figure to be in an ornery mood after getting bushwhacked Saturday night at Arizona State. oregonlive, "Goe: Oregon State’s defense buckles at WSU, bowl game remains out of reach," 24 Nov. 2019 The Aggies, a bit ornery because of their semi-slow start, stirred and wound up putting the Demons at arm’s length in the first half and kept the game that way throughout. Brent Zwerneman, Houston Chronicle, "Texas A&M begins Buzz Williams era with win," 6 Nov. 2019 But from there, facing an LA lineup stacked with a half-dozen lefty hitters, Scherzer displayed the sort of ornery dominance that helped him win three Cy Young Awards. chicagotribune.com, "Max Scherzer’s gem lifts the Nationals past the Dodgers 6-1, setting the stage for an NLDS Game 5," 7 Oct. 2019

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

6 Jan 2020

Cite this Entry

“Ornery.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ornery. Accessed 17 Feb. 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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