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 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

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
Recent Examples on the Web Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula is named after the incident when a mail carrier struggled to pass an ornery moose. David Reamer, Anchorage Daily News, 17 Apr. 2022 Ample acid, bales of wacky weed, coltish young men and hot, ornery women turned this crossroads into a cradle of hippie, stoner creativity. Steve Ditlea, SPIN, 14 Mar. 2022 But Earthgang is also a distinctly post-millennial group that blurs together inspirations with open-minded passion, and without the ornery defensiveness that defined so much early Dirty South rap. Mosi Reeves, Rolling Stone, 25 Feb. 2022 Several of these narratives offer assurance that Ms. Kaplan’s ornery outsiders find a place for themselves in the world. Heller Mcalpin, WSJ, 11 Feb. 2022 All that stands in the way is a stable of ornery bulls and the luck of the draw. Dave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 3 Feb. 2022 The result is a rich, tangy, delicately floral ranch sure to impress even the most ornery of ranch purists. Bon Appétit, 31 Jan. 2022 Sondheim could be ferociously ornery with performers, and God knows with critics. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, 27 Nov. 2021 Reed died in 2013 and hated giving interviews, so The Velvet Underground treats him as an ornery cypher while the 79-year-old Cale dispenses recollections in a majestic accent. Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic, 16 Oct. 2021 See More

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.

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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Last Updated

26 Apr 2022

Cite this Entry

“Ornery.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ornery. Accessed 26 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for ornery


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

Nglish: Translation of ornery for Spanish Speakers


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