or·​nery ˈȯr-nə-rē How to pronounce ornery (audio)
ornerier; orneriest
: 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
: 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
chiefly Midwestern US : 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
orneriness noun

Did you know?

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
Recent Examples on the Web One of this District native’s great talents involves rapping in a sour, ornery sneer that can often be traced back to a tender, hurting heart. Chris Richards, Washington Post, 16 Feb. 2024 The current record holder is a particularly ornery polygon with a Heesch number of six, discovered in 2020 by Bojan Bašić of the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. Craig S. Kaplan, Scientific American, 14 Dec. 2023 The Breeders’ Cup Classic attracted some horses as old as four and five — tough, ornery veterans. Bill Dwyre, Los Angeles Times, 31 Dec. 2023 To date, the novel has sold 1.4 million copies, an impressive feat for a debut that features an ornery octopus narrator. Alexandra Alter, New York Times, 30 Dec. 2023 David Mamet is ornery and funny—a delightful grump. Kyle Smith, WSJ, 5 Dec. 2023 Nevertheless, Gloria still appears to have a clear path to re-election, despite an ornery electorate exasperated by rampant homelessness and the high cost of housing, among other things. Michael Smolens, San Diego Union-Tribune, 17 Dec. 2023 One hurdle is to persuade a city full of ornery individualists to pitch in. Justin Davidson, Curbed, 12 Dec. 2023 Traffic jams of ornery yaks and deliriously tired hikers force us to adopt a stop-start pace. Jen Murphy, Robb Report, 17 Sep. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'ornery.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


alteration of ordinary

First Known Use

1849, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of ornery was in 1849

Dictionary Entries Near ornery

Cite this Entry

“Ornery.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ornery. Accessed 28 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


or·​nery ˈȯrn-(ə-)rē How to pronounce ornery (audio)
ornerier; orneriest
: having an irritable disposition
orneriness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on ornery

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!