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A cartoon of an ornery boss (sense 1).

A contracted or dialectal pronunciation of ordinary.[1] Sense 3 (“ordinary, commonplace”) was the earliest sense; the meaning of the word then shifted to “inferior, plain-looking, unpleasant”—presumably due to ordinariness—and finally to sense 1 (“disagreeable, stubborn, and troublesome to deal with”).



ornery (comparative ornerier, superlative orneriest)

  1. (originally and chiefly US, especially Appalachia, informal) Disagreeable, stubborn, and troublesome to deal with; cantankerous.
    Synonyms: contrary, crabby, cross-grained, crotchety, (US) honery, ill-tempered, intractable, obnoxious, obstreperous, peevish, (slang) stroppy, unsociable
    • 1922 November 25, A[rthur] M[urray] Chisholm, “A Thousand a Plate. Chapter II.”, in Western Story Magazine, volume XXX, number 4, New York, N.Y.: Street & Smith, →OCLC, page 90, column 2:
      Seemingly here was an intruder who was violating custom. Moreover, the partners had come to look upon this exceedingly rich district as their exclusive property. And so their indignation was extreme. "The low-down, ornery cuss!" said Dobbs. "The nerve of him, crowdin' in on us, just as if there wasn't lots of other places for him to go!"
    • 1924 October, John Galsworthy, “Sleuth”, in The White Monkey, London: William Heinemann, published November 1924, →OCLC, part II, page 196:
      Through Michael sped the thought: 'Could I make her jealous?' And he was shocked at it. A low-down thought—mean and ornery!
    • 1939 February 2, Dudley Nichols, Stagecoach (motion picture), spoken by Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), Hollywood, Los Angeles, Calif.: United Artists, →OCLC:
      I ain't sayin' I don't share your sentiments, Buck, but you're a born fool. First place Luke would kill the Kid in a gun-fight. Second place if Luke did get shot he's got two brothers just as ornery as he is, and if Ike Plummer didn't kill the Kid then Hank Plummer would.
    • 1990, John Updike, “FL”, in Rabbit at Rest (A Borzoi Book), New York, N.Y.: Alfred A[braham] Knopf, →ISBN, page 77:
      [“S]he was a girl and girls are less ornery than boys. Though I guess Mim was ornery in her way. Once she got to be sixteen, she put my parents through hell.” / “Grandpa, what’s ‘ornery’?” / “Oh, you know. Mean. Contrary. Rebellious.” / “Like Daddy?” / “I don’t think of your daddy as ornery, just, what‘s the word?—very uptight about things. People get to him more than they do to most people.”
    • 2013 January 20, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight (motion picture), spoken by Jesse (Ethan Hawke), New York, N.Y.: Sony Pictures Classics, →OCLC:
      After a lifetime of being sweet as pie, once Grandpa died, she got kinda ornery.
    • 2020 May 25, Abby Ellin, “Couples who eat together may not stay together”, in The New York Times[1], New York, N.Y.: The New York Times Company, →ISSN, →OCLC, archived from the original on 2023-05-17:
      But in many instances, the complainers are not just being ornery [about noisy eating]; they could have a condition called misophonia, in which one experiences strong negative feelings to specific sounds—like the proverbial nails on a chalkboard.
  2. (Southern US, humorous, informal) Troublesome to deal with in a good way; mischievous, prankish, teasing.
    Synonym: full of the devil
  3. (obsolete) Ordinary, commonplace; hence, inferior, plain-looking, unpleasant.

Alternative forms[edit]

Derived terms[edit]



  1. ^ ornery, adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, September 2023; ornery, adj.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.