Today’s vocabulary lesson: Ornery

My daughter is ornery. In fact, one of her nicknames is Ornery Anya — and, as it turns out, a large part of the reason for that nickname is where I come from.

Let me back up a minute.

It bugs me when words vary wildly in spelling and pronunciation. Makes me worry I am spelling or saying the word incorrectly. I get that some letters are silent, and that shifts in language do things like make us write colonel yet say kernel. Fine. But how in the heck do we get ahnree from ornery? I asked myself.

To Google! Where I discovered that the dictionary and I have vastly different definitions and pronunciations for this word. I have always used it, and have always heard it used, to mean an impish, mischievous person. A prankster. Someone who does things like, say, light a string of firecrackers in the bathroom while his brother is in the shower. Or someone who, in retaliation, lights a string of firecrackers under the open window his brother is sitting in front of — days later, when the original firecracker incident has been forgotten.

My uncles. Both gone now, RIP. And both ornery. In my sense, not Merriam-Webster’s.

The* dictionary says an ornery person is crabby. I am not unfamiliar with this definition; I’ve seen it used in books, and have even heard people use it to describe old people and mean dogs. In that sense, I’ve always heard it pronounced orn-er-ree.

The dictionary also pronounces it orn-er-ree. Like it’s spelled. So my faith in spelling has been restored.

I am not at all surprised that I pronounce it differently; where I come from, you warsh things and write with an ink pin. I then moved to a place where vowels are afraid to travel alone; here, you write with an eenk pee-in. I’ve long since accepted that the way I say things and the way I am used to hearing them does not necessarily mesh with the rest of the country. But how did I end up with two definitions and two pronunciations?

Then I came across an entry in a blog I used to follow before I had kids and lost any semblance of free time: Language Log. TL;DR version: While the dictionary has one definition and pronunciation, there is a second definition and pronunciation that is also widespread, that coincides with the usage I’m familiar with. This usage is most prevalent in the Midwest.

I’m from the Midwest, so…there you go.

Wiktionary also acknowledges a second use, though they attribute it to the South rather than the Midwest. (I’m finding more and more that there are many linguistic overlaps between the South and the Midwest.) Which explains why my non-Midwestern friends use this same definition and pronunciation.

I did notice that Urban Dictionary acknowledges the secondary definition/pronunciation, but they spell it awnry or anry. You’d think I would prefer that spelling to ornery, as it is more closely aligned with the pronunciation I use and also acknowledges the distinction in definition by treating it like an entirely separate word. But I guess I’ve grown accustomed to the original spelling, because awnry just looks wrong to me. Maybe because it’s one letter from awry, which has a totally different pronunciation. I don’t like anry any better, though, as it’s one letter short of angry. No, though in my mouth the word starts with an a sound, I still feel like the original spelling is better in writing.

The misspellings would look better with Anya, though. Spoken aloud, ahnree Anya rolls off the tongue, but seeing it in print — ornery Anya — is jarring. Awnry Anya at least looks like the two words sound alike.

A rose by any other name, I guess, would still be a little stinker.

I wish my uncles had lived to meet her. They’d have gotten a kick out of her.

*I know there is not one authoritative dictionary, so I give you definitions from eight — take your pick.


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