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TWTS: The not-so-ordinary world of "ordinary" and "ornery"


Some words sound similar but don't have anything to do with each other. Others sound similar and have everything to do with each other. 

When a listener asked us about "ornery," we had no idea that it fell into the latter category, alongside "ordinary." They do sound similar, but how are they related?

We've heard several pronunciations of "ornery," including "ORN-ree," "ORE-ner-ee," and "AWN-ree." This breadth of pronunciations is interesting, since "ornery" first appeared in the U.S. around the beginning of the 19th century as an alternative pronunciation for "ordinary."

In its early days, "ornery" was a synonym for "ordinary." For example, someone might be described as "ornery-looking." However, it could also mean "worthless" or "low quality." To understand how "ornery" took on these more negative meanings, we need to look at the history of "ordinary."

"Ordinary" has long had the familiar meanings of "belonging to the usual order of things" or "occurring in the course of regular practice."  By the 1600s though, "ordinary" could also be used to talk about people of  a lower social position -- i.e. commoners or people who were considered unrefined or low.

This is how "ordinary" starts to get more negative meanings such as "low quality." When its alternative pronunciation "ornery" shows up, the more negative meanings of "ordinary" follow it as seen in this quote from 1816: "The land is old, completely worn-out, the farming extremely ornery in general."

In other words, that land is worthless.

From here, "ornery" just gets worse. It takes on more and more negative meanings including "cantankerous," "mean," and "unpleasant." However, there are speakers for whom "ornery" is a much less negative term. To hear more about that, listen to the above audio.   


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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