I’m an ornery person, and proudly so. The word “ornery” typically has negative connotations, so lest you judge me for simply being grumpy and mean, let me explain why I actually bear it as a positive and even honorable descriptor.
I playfully referred to a much-loved waitress in a local restaurant as “ornery” recently, which resulted in a conversation with some friends about the true meaning of orneriness. I stated my understanding of “good ornery” and “bad ornery,” and one friend in particular disagreed that there even is such a thing as “good ornery.” So I looked it up, and the various dictionary definitions sadly supported her mostly negative rendition of the word with a prolific list of unpleasant qualities: ugly in disposition or temper, stubborn, vile, inferior, common, mean-spirited, disagreeable, or contrary in disposition.
I had just convinced the waitress, a non-native English speaker, that orneriness was an admirable quality, so after reading these various disturbing definitions, I cringed to imagine her looking it up in a dictionary and thinking that I was some sick, self-righteous sadist.
In spite of this negative propaganda against orneriness, I still contend that it can be a positive attribute and believe that the dictionary definition of “ill-tempered” orneriness should be revised to include this broader understanding and recognition of alternative cultural uses of “good-natured” orneriness.
When I was growing up, ornery was mostly used in the negative sense. If my parents said I was being ornery, they usually meant that I was being stubbornly disobedient. “Ornery” was also frequently used as a synonym for “lazy,” which is not documented in a dictionary. “Ornery” as disagreeable or lazy was also typically applied to support the stereotype of certain classes of people such as “white-trash” or racial minorities.
My understanding of this quality in myself and others has evolved over time, and I use the term mostly in the positive sense to indicate my admiration of one’s unapologetic self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek critique of taking oneself or others too seriously. I’m not sure when exactly I began to understand that the word “ornery” actually alluded to positive qualities that society classifies negatively in order to suppress individual expression, creativity, and assertiveness; but I believe that it is directly related to its use as a derogatory term to describe individuals and groups that are socially, economically, or otherwise oppressed, underprivileged, and/or deprived of equal access to status and capital. As such, I see orneriness as an almost essential quality for healthy rebellion, activism, and solidarity across seemingly divergent identities.
In my search for supporting cultural evidence that good-natured orneriness exists, I stumbled upon several websites celebrating the attitudes and values of Ornery Americans, Ornery Women, and Ornery Librarians among others. These folks proudly embody an ornery political sensibility as well as more the playful aspects that are essential for well-rounded orneriness. There are many more good and ornery examples that can be discovered by a simple Google search, many of which are personal musings and manifestos purporting orneriness as a positive attribute.
Why have I gone so long without realizing that there is clearly a good-natured ornery community of naysayers in response to the naysayers? So again I assert, in my good-natured ornery way, that there is ample evidence that the traditional conception of orneriness is worthy of revision. Therefore, I offer the following definition, which also reflects my primary personal use of the term, as an alternative cultural vision of orneriness in service of the greater good: 1. irreverent, witty, 2. blunt, honest, forthright, 3. playful, mischievous, teasing, and 4. crafty, wily, sneaky.
While none of these individual descriptors stand alone as a complete synonym for “ornery,” the totality of this vision represents the existence of an ornery disposition that questions authority, acknowledges personal power, and employs prankster (rather than gangster) methods of vigilante justice. So I encourage you to evaluate your own orneriness and whether you use it with good-natured or ill-tempered intentions; observe good-natured orneriness in others and respect it as a viable and valuable social skill; and educate your community about the vast network of ornery do-gooders who epitomize the only real hope for positive change in an ill-tempered world.
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