Public editor

When dictionary and colloquial collide

Updated: 2013-12-28T23:44:56Z

By Derek Donovan

The Kansas City Star

An emailer this afternoon posed a decent question about word usage — a topic that's often on readers' minds. That's especially true in a sensitive story such as the one he was writing about, which concerns a terrible fire that claimed the lives of two toddlers in Pratt, Kan.

The "tragic story makes this a bad example to use," he wrote. "But what do you think of the use of the word 'ornery' in this article?"

The story describes one of the children's personalities, saying "Jasper, true to his ornery nature, had been throwing M&Ms."

The Star refers to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which defines "ornery" as "easily annoyed or angered" or "difficult to deal with or control." That seems at odds with the description of the child.

But here, I'd also say it's at odds with my own experience. "Ornery" is a term I heard often while growing up in the Midwest, and it was virtually always a term of endearment. In my world, at least, it was an especially affectionate synonym for "mischievous," used exclusively to describe benign behavior. It's much more akin to "naughty" than "difficult" to me.

I wonder if I'm alone here, but I didn't read this story as intending to use the term as a pejorative.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to Follow him at

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