September 27, 2000
Gregory Payne wrote:
A word I am interested in is ornery. My understanding is that it is a corruption or derivative of ordinary. But to get from "ordinary" ('usual, common') to "ornery" ('stubborn, obstinate, mulish') seems a bit odd.
Ornery is a dialect use of ordinary and has also been spelled awnry, o'nary, onery, onry, ornary, and ornry. All of these spellings are written representations of the way people pronounced ordinary. What's interesting is that, instead of just remaining a dialect form of "ordinary," ornery developed a meaning of its own and became a completely new standard English word.
It does seem like quite a stretch from 'usual or common' to 'stubborn' until we fill in the gap in the development of the meaning. The Dictionary of American Regional English gives several examples of ornery meaning 'ordinary' in the 19th century. Here's one from Pennsylvania: "When I condescend to unbuzzum myself ... to folks of ornery intellect and caparisoned to me, I know very few people that ar'n't ornery as to brains..." (1838).
A Maryland farmer by the name of Brown wrote in his journal in 1816: "The Land is old, completely worn out, the farming extremely ornary in general." If something is "ordinary," it's 'nothing special', and from there it's an easy step to 'not very good'. Ornery developed the sense of 'low' or 'mean' or 'inferior' during the first half of the 19th century. Mark Twain used it this way in several of his books, most frequently in Huckleberry Finn (1884): "The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling." Examples of ornery with an edge of contempt abound throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Here's one of my favorite citations: "Southerner: You ornery fellow! do you pretend to call me to account for my language? Yankee: I did but drop a hint." (Massachusetts Spy and Worcester County Advocate, 1830).
By the middle of the 19th century, ornery also came to mean 'unpleasant and troublesome' and 'ill-tempered and cantankerous': "Good company betters the orneriest sort er weather" (Winthrop, John Brent, 1862). We find it applied in this way to animals (horses, mules, goats, cats, sheep, and mosquitoes) as well as to people and objects. Two recent citations from the Calgary Herald refer to both alligators and grizzly bears as "ornery." The 'stubborn' and 'obstinate' sense seems to be a further development of the 'troublesome, cantankerous' one. When someone or something isn't doing your bidding, it's natural to call him, her, or it "stubborn." The most common meaning of ornery today is 'disagreeable in disposition', combining the senses of 'ill-tempered' and 'obstinate'.
Journalists have long been fond of referring to both the public and legislators as "ornery": "We are forced to spend all this money solely because mankind up to now is too ornery to organize international life on some more sensible basis" (Baltimore Sun, 1938). Just last week, the Los Angeles Times wrote: "A few years ago, California lawmakers were in a pretty ornery mood about undocumented immigrants living in the Golden State."
And here's a final citation for election year: "He's a good enough fellow, only he's an onery scamp of a Republican" (Custer, Tenting on Plains, 1887).
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