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 Times may contain multitudes, but running a travel agency that drops ornery 65-year-old journalists into the literal jungle with a pack of sharp teens is a bridge too far. New York Times, "Postcard From Peru: Why the Morality Plays Inside The Times Won’t Stop," 14 Feb. 2021 Her grandfather, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), is an ornery old cuss. Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic, "'Uncle Frank' is a prime example of glossy family drama from Alan Ball of 'Six Feet Under'," 25 Nov. 2020 But both Yang and Lebowitz have hitched themselves to the city in its dark hour, one promising to turn things around and the other acting as its ornery mascot. Michael Schulman, The New Yorker, "Andrew Yang, Fran Lebowitz, and Who Gets to Be a “Real” New Yorker," 21 Jan. 2021 Her grandfather, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), is an ornery old cuss. Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic, "'Uncle Frank' is a prime example of glossy family drama from Alan Ball of 'Six Feet Under'," 25 Nov. 2020 The story of Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation from crabby miser and ornery misanthrope to a generous and fulfilled human has been a Guthrie mainstay for 45 years, introducing and hooking generations of Minnesotans to theater. Rohan Preston Star Tribune, Star Tribune, "Guthrie's hybrid 'Christmas Carol' is a ghost story for the streaming era," 17 Dec. 2020 People can be ornery about their rights and slippery about their responsibilities. Peggy Noonan, WSJ, "Mrs. Smith’s Tips for New Lawmakers," 10 Dec. 2020 Her grandfather, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), is an ornery old cuss. Bill Goodykoontz, Detroit Free Press, "Warm ‘Uncle Frank’ offers glimpse of gay life half a century ago," 26 Nov. 2020 This much is clear: The Mavericks need interior size and muscle, preferably the ornery kind. Dallas News, "Mavericks turn eyes toward free agency in fast-paced NBA offseason: ‘We’re not done yet’," 20 Nov. 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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Statistics for ornery

Last Updated

25 Feb 2021

Cite this Entry

“Ornery.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ornery. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.

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More Definitions for ornery



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

More from Merriam-Webster on ornery

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for ornery

Nglish: Translation of ornery for Spanish Speakers

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