During a running debate or whether I Wonder as I Wander qualifies as a Christmas Carol, I looked up the lyrics. The first verse:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die

For poor on'ry people like you and like I...

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

I was surprised to hear that a fragmentary version of the song was heard in 1933 in North Carolina, and then transcribed by John Jacob Niles (who paid $1.75 in silver quarters).

(Lyrics and history from A Kentucky Christmas.)

I'm curious about the contraction on'ry in line three. Since it originates in the US, I'm inclined to believe it means ornery (stubborn). (This would require the deletion of the post-vocalic r as well as the unstressed vowel in the second syllable.)

A definition of ornery traces it back to "ordinary."

There are not many references to the contraction, but a 1973 Waylon Jennings album is entitled Lonesome, On'ry, and Mean. I believe that this usage, also, is pointing toward ornery.

So, are you and I ornery, ordinary, or something else? If we're ornery, has the meaning shifted between Niles's usage in 1933 and Waylon Jennings' usage forty years later?

  • 5
    "Ornery" in the sense of "mean" or "irascible", which is that in the Waylon Jennings song, was a word distinct from "ordinary" by the middle of the 19th century. But the ballad version is "ordinary", heavily elided to fit the meter. Nov 30, 2013 at 23:12
  • 3
    So in 1933, "ordinary" => "ornery" => "or'ny" ==> mean (average, common). In 1973, "ornery" => "or'ny" ==> mean (angry, irascible). They start and end at the same concept, but the concepts shifted.
    – rajah9
    Dec 1, 2013 at 2:30
  • I think not. Long before 1933 "ornery" was an independent word having only a historical connection with "ordinary". That word is is still alive in Jennings' 1973 recording. But what JJN recorded in 1933 was the same pronunciation of "ordinary" which evolved sixty or seventy years earlier into "ornery". Dec 1, 2013 at 2:53
  • onry Eye dialect spelling of ornery, representing Southern United States English. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/onry
    – Kris
    Dec 1, 2013 at 7:33
  • Caveat "It is quite widely accepted in the academic community that Niles's material is unreliable. A number of songs, including some very lovely ones, that he claimed to have "collected" are known to have been written by him. Some he claims to have found in fragmentary form ("I Wonder as I Wander" for example), others he wrote from scratch ("Venezuela"). None of the scholars with whom I exchange information take his Ballad Book seriously."( Sandy Paton) So you have to entertain the possibility that "on'ry" meant ordinary, because Niles needed a 2-syllable word and couldn't come up with one.
    – Airymouse
    Dec 13, 2016 at 23:19

5 Answers 5


In the most literal sense, the two previous answers are correct: "on'ry" here is almost certainly meant to be a contraction for "ordinary".

However, I think an important piece of background is being missed here. If you read the story of that song, it was transcribed from a song sung by the daughter of an itinerant preacher in far west North Carolina. If we can assume this preacher (and his daughter) would have tried to stick to his own dialect area, this song was almost certainly written by an Appalachian English speaker, and intended for an audience of fellow Appalachian English speakers.

Given this, I don't think "ornery" should be dismissed. This is an important word in Appalachian culture. According to the etymologies I've been able to dig up, it originated as a contraction for "ordinary", just like you see here in this 1933 song.

What this means is that at some point (presumably back when it was merely a contraction), they were in fact the same word. One nuance a lot of folks miss is that "ornery" is typically used affectionately. People of Appalachian heritage will use it for themselves or their relatives with pride. One could argue that being ornery is an important part of Appalachian self image. So if you take "ordinary" to mean "ordinary Appalachian", the meanings aren't really all that separated even today. In simple terms, an "ordinary" person is supposed to be "ornery".

So it is quite possible that both words were intended.

  • Good explanation of the background of the preacher and his daughter using the vernacular. I had not known of the positive connotation ("used affectionately") of ornery.
    – rajah9
    Jan 8, 2014 at 16:15

The carol, by John Jacob Niles, was inspired by a tune he heard in Appalachia in the '30s, and was originally named "Appalachian Carol".

"A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins.... But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song." The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with "three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea".

It's unlikely she meant ornery, because not all people are ornery, and Jesus died for everybody, not just the cantankerous, nor only the favored or very good. So she was probably saying He died for ordinary folk.

Etymology (per Wiki) "Contracted or dialectal pronunciation of ordinary."

From Etymology Online ornery (adj.) 1816, American English dialectal contraction of ordinary (adj.). "Commonplace," hence "of poor quality, coarse, ugly." By c.1860 the sense had evolved to "mean, cantankerous." Related: Orneriness.


Myself with family from Southern Ohio, along the river, and from West Virginia, I endorse the opinion that the sense of "ornery" should not be underestimated. "Ornery" is a very common descriptive word in Appalachia for both children and certain adults (applied often to me). And I think the comment that not all adults are ornery misses the theological point: in fact, we all ARE ornery, slaves to our own wishes and desires and "prone to wander" from the will of God. In this sense, then, being "ornery" is also being "ordinary." I think the sense of the song is enhanced by the double meaning.


This is a contraction for "ordinary". It was created to fit the rhythm of the verses - it isn't in or'ny usage. ;)


My family is from North Carolina and commonly use "on'ry" and they do not mean "ordinary". They mean capable of getting up to sinful things. I think that was the intent. We are all sinners. We are all capable of on'ry things. Jesus came to save us from our sins.

  • Which part of NC are they from? Appalachia? (Or more tellingly, at a family barbecue, is the sauce based on tomatoes or not?)
    – rajah9
    Dec 13, 2016 at 20:08

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.