adjective or·nery \ ˈȯr-nə-rē , ˈär- ; ˈȯrn-rē , ˈärn- , ˈȯn- , ˈän- \
|Updated on: 21 Jul 2018

Definition of ornery

ornerier; orneriest
1 a : 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



Examples of ornery in a Sentence

  1. 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 GrossmanTime21 July 2003
  2. 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 MosleNew York Times Book Review17 May 1998
  3. I'm getting more and more ornery in my old age.

  4. an ornery old man who always yells at the neighborhood kids to keep off his lawn

Recent Examples of ornery from the Web

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.

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."

Origin and Etymology of ornery

alteration of ordinary

ORNERY Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of ornery for English Language Learners

  • : easily annoyed or angered

  • : difficult to deal with or control

ORNERY Defined for Kids


adjective or·nery \ ˈȯr-nə-rē \

Definition of ornery for Students

ornerier; orneriest
: becoming angry or annoyed easily

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one who attends or assists a leader

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