Wednesday, June 20, 2007

On Ornery

Backposted from Bone's Blahg Blahg Blahg 4/24/07:

I'm an ornery person, and proudly so. The word "ornery" typically has negative connotations, so lest you judge me for simply being a grumpy-ass bitch, 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 on my handy-dandy Blackjack in the car, and sadly the definition supported her mostly negative rendition of the word with a prolific list of unpleasant qualities:

or·ner·y / [awr-nuh-ree]
–adjective, -ner·i·er, -ner·i·est. Dialect.
1. ugly and unpleasant in disposition or temper: No one can get along with my ornery cousin.
2. stubborn: I can't do a thing with that ornery mule.
3. low or vile.
4. inferior or common; ordinary.
[Origin: 1790–1800; contr. of ordinary]
—Synonyms 1. mean, ill-tempered, ill-natured, surly, testy. Unabridged (v 1.1)Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006

or·ner·y (ôr'n?-re) adj. or·ner·i·er, or·ner·i·est Mean-spirited, disagreeable, and contrary in disposition; cantankerous. [Alteration of ordinary.]
or'ner·i·ness' n.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth EditionCopyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

1816, Amer.Eng. dialectal contraction of ordinary. "Commonplace," hence "of poor quality, coarse, ugly." By c.1860 the sense had evolved to "mean, cantankerous."
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper

having a difficult and contrary disposition; "a cantankerous and venomous-tongued old lady"- Dorothy Sayers [syn: cantankerous]
WordNet® 3.0, © 2006 by Princeton University.

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 argue that the dictionary definition should be revised to include this broader understanding and recognition of alternative cultural uses of the term. Rather than dichotomize it into a dualistic opposition of "good ornery" and "bad ornery" however, I would frame it more in terms of "good-natured" orneriness and "ill-tempered" 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 and ironically supports my own argument that the word has connotations beyond the standard definition. "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 to the point that 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.

As an ornery person, I admire this quality in myself and others, and I tend to get along with ornery people. In my search for supporting cultural evidence that good-natured orneriness exists, I stumbled upon a the Ornery American website, which includes a weekly "World Watch" column by Orson Scott Card (an amazing sci-fi author) as well as a detailed explanation of "Who is the Ornery American?" Following are some persuasive excerpts in support of my ornery premise:

The word "ornery" began as "ordinary." In the days when you were either of the "gentle" class or merely "ordinary," parents would say to their stubborn children when they refused to do as they were told, "Don't be so ordin'ry."

On this website, we look for the voices of those Ornery Americans -- the common folk who don't pretend to be intellectuals or elite in any other way, but who are just stubborn enough to think that we ordinary folk are the ones to whom this nation was entrusted from the start.

1. We aren't impressed by your credentials, Dr. This or Senator That. We aren't going to take your word for it, we're going to think it through for ourselves.

2. We don't like being spun. That doesn't mean we aren't sometimes fooled by the way reporters slant their stories, but when we find out how we've been manipulated, we get a little mad and we refuse to trust that writer, commentator, that magazine, that newspaper, that news network, or that politician again.

3. We think America is larger and more important than our self-interest. You can't buy our integrity with a boomtown economy, and we won't let you shame our country just to avoid risking American lives. We Americans have never been afraid to make sacrifices for a worthy cause.

4. We believe that character matters -- our own character, the character of our leaders, and the character of our nation as a whole. We don't like bullies and cowards, liars and hypocrites, and we don't appreciate it when our leaders make our nation behave as if that were what Americans are.

5. We'll forgive your misdeeds, but only if you apologize sincerely and never do it again. Our trust, once betrayed, is not lightly restored.

The Ornery American seems particularly focused on a sort of ornery political sensibility, which I referred to in my own pontification and reconception of the word. But what about the more playful aspects that are essential for well-rounded orneriness? That's where the Ornery Librarian (whose blog tagline is "…because I am grumpy, like to read, and have too much time on my hands") illuminates the way. For example, the following blog review:

Entertaining and Witty

Librarian's Guide to Etiquette
Oh, I'll admit it, I loves me some librarian humor. And not even in that ironic way of the hipster. No, I've been known to bust a gut over a good Dewey joke. So, this blog of etiquette tips for librarians is naturally right up my alley. Caustic and clever, the entries have a generous dose of sarcasm. An example:"After interviewing for a library job, it is customary to send thank you notes to the individual search committee members. If you suspect that there's a chance you won't get the job and you plan to send a follow-up voodoo death curse, be sure to collect a strand of hair from each of the committee members during the interview." (Librarian's Guide to Etiquette, 12/12/06)

My only complaint is that updates are sporadic. But, its usually worth the wait.bottom line: alarmingly clever librarian humor

If that's not convincing enough, there is also an Ornery Woman blog, whose tagline is: "Women bloggers extending the middle finger to the majority of the world." Ornery Woman is not an individual person but a collective "group of female bloggers whose backgrounds are both in fiction and expository writing. Although we all have varied interests, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and writing styles, we all share something in common: a desire to get a little something off our chests."

Why have I gone so long without realizing that there is clearly a good-natured ornery community of naysayers in response to the naysayers? 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. 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:

ornery adj.
1. irreverent, witty
2. blunt, honest, forthright
3. playful, mischievous, teasing
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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Blogger Billychic said...

One day, while doing a google search to see where Ornery Woman was in the ranks, I came across this post on your MySpace blog - and immediately was overjoyed.
1) Somebody read our blog!
2) She dug it
3) She dug that it was Ornery!

And so, I made it a point to seek you out. We are thrilled to have you here, and look forward to having you post and share your musings and thoughts - you are a groovy gal with a killer brain 'twixt the ears.

Welcome, Tambone.

~ d

1:28 PM  
Blogger Nikki_Jilton said...

Oh dang, I always thought "ornery" was just some posh slang abridged version of "ordinary." whups ;)

8:01 AM  
Blogger Tambone said...

Tanks (as in Tank Girl), Billychic, for such a warm welcome to the fold.

Nikki, it's funny that, even with my amateur interest in etymology, I only recently learned that "ornery" was derived from "ordinary." That fact made it even more apparent to me that the term was clearly meant to cement class distinctions, which is why it needs to be reclaimed! Onward, ornery comrade!

9:50 AM  

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