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."

Example Sentences

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 Flu is ornery and unpredictable, and often unwilling to be forecasted at all. Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic, 26 Sep. 2022 Without the bison, the tall grasses grow so thick together that moving anywhere requires tramping down thickets of ornery stalks almost guaranteed to be hiding snakes or other dangers. Sarah Laskow, The Atlantic, 1 Oct. 2022 An ornery middle schooler, Lance proudly wore an Auburn jacket around his father, an alumnus of rival school Alabama. Alexis Cubit, The Courier-Journal, 16 Sep. 2022 But a recent study shows that a single spritz of oxytocin…a hormone known to promote social bonding…renders even the most ornery alpha a total pussycat. Karen Hopkin, Scientific American, 12 Aug. 2022 Murkier still is the question of whether oil executives—many of them staunchly right-wing, with an ornery dislike for Democratic presidents—will be responsive to such incentives. Kate Aronoff, The New Republic, 12 Aug. 2022 When the big cat got too ornery for plane rides, Turner kept Gilmore as a pet in his Beverly Hills home until the lion died in 1952. Roger Catlin, Smithsonian Magazine, 27 June 2022 In director Jade King Carroll’s exquisite Shakespeare Theatre Company production, the characters engage in ornate and ornery exchanges about acting techniques, onstage intimacy, whitewashing and theater’s civic purpose. Thomas Floyd, Washington Post, 24 June 2022 And looks down on Rhode Island for being ornery and small. Mark Pazniokas, Hartford Courant, 8 June 2022 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.

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 5 Dec. 2022.

Kids Definition



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

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