• ornery •
Pronunciation: or-nêr-ee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Contrary, cantankerous, mean, disagreeable.
Notes: This odd little word sounds awfully American but, in fact, it came to us from 17th century England. That is long enough for it to have picked up a noun, orneriness, but not an adverb. Despite its longevity, it is still considered slang, so save it for humorous occasions.
In Play: Ornery is an ordinary word you are liable to hear frequently around the house in some regions: "Now, don't get ornery. Mow the lawn before the game starts; otherwise, you know it won't be done." We've all heard this low-brow word and, if I'm not mistaken, most of us occasionally use it in constructions like this: "Don't even ask Bob Wire. He is in one of his ornery moods and wouldn't give you air in a jug right now."
Word History: Words are like kids: they get into trouble easily. This word has been naughty enough to have done itself quite a bit of damage. It started out as the ordinary word ordinary, but then the Americans reduced the upper-class British pronunciation of the word (ord'n'ry) to ornery, which they took as a discrete word. Ordinary came to us via French from Latin ordinarius "in order, usual, regular", an adjective based on ordo, ordinis "row, line, series". The same deep root, Proto-Indo-European ar- "fit together, join", also underlies arm, a word borrowed from Latin armus "joint, shoulder". In Greek it emerged in harmon "joint, shoulder", at the root of harmonia "fitting together, harmony", which we borrowed as harmony. Such a long journey to end up with such a mean meaning.