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I am curious about the history of "owly" to mean irritable, grumpy, or uncooperative.

The Word Detective explains (but doesn't substantiate) that the association derives from the fact that many owls have tufts of feathers above their eyes which resemble the furrowed brow of a grumpy old man. Seems a bit specious to me, particularly since I thought we associated owls primarily with wisdom.

Also: is this usage - as a colleague insists - truly limited to northeastern US and eastern Canada?

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    I've certainly never heard it before.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 23:51
  • I've heard Groucho referred to as a 'mordant crow', so I wouldn't be surprised at this usage. I can only find references tagged (or equivalent) 'Nova Scotia' or 'slang'. It might catch on in the UK; we do use 'wolfish' and 'unbearable'. Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 23:54
  • @EdwinAshworth: I don't understand what "unbearable" has to do with anything - it's not based on an animal, just a homonym of one.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 23:59
  • 1
    @Martha I don't understand what wearing silly hats has to do with anything, but it seems to be considered part of the festive thing, and people have fun doing it. Fine. I prefer puns. Merry Christmas :-) Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 0:12
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    I recall it most often being applied to small children who missed their naps or were staying up late for some reason. They would get an overall behavior and appearance that reminded one of an owl, including the "I'm not sleepy!!" twisting of the head resembling an owl.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 2:31

4 Answers 4

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+100

It is actually related to how owls look. They look grumpy! (at least most of them).

enter image description here

There is a strong evidence that it might be originated from Nova Scotia or around that region in colloquial usage:

enter image description here

[South Shore Phrase Book: New, Revised and Expanded Nova Scotia Dictionary By Lewis Poteet (2004)]


enter image description here enter image description here

[Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English edited by T. K. Pratt (1996)]

The Word Detective also talks about the origin of this term based on a question asked by a Nova Scotian whose mother called her and her sister "owly" when they were in irritable moods. It also relates the term to owl's appearance:

Such is the case with “owly,” which is indeed how it’s spelled. Since at least the mid-19th century, “owly” has been a colloquial term meaning “cranky, cross, angry or fretful.” It’s considered a regional usage, found largely in eastern Canada and the Upper Midwest of the US.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists “owly” first as a synonym of “owlish,” meaning, literally, “resembling an owl,” but usually applied to people who exhibit an unblinking, calm (but often critical) gaze, similar to that of a wide-eyed owl (“The little man with his most owlish air of wisdom,” I. Zangwill, 1895).

“Owly” as a synonym for “cranky” or “irritable” appears to draw on another aspect of the owl’s appearance. Many species of owl have tufts of feathers above their eyes, making the bird resemble a little man with his brow furrowed in disapproval and annoyance. Coupled with the owl’s intense, piercing stare, you have a perfect visual metaphor for someone in a persistently implacable bad mood.


An older dialectal dictionary gives the meaning as stupid and tired for owly; and sleepy and stupid for owlish. The meaning might have expanded in time or this usage might be unrelated and archaic in British English. All the three dictionaries below say that owly is a word in Suffolk dialect.

enter image description here

[English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) compiled by Joseph Wright (1898-1905)]


enter image description here

[A dictionary of archaic and provincial words, obsolete phrases, proverbs, and ancient customs, from the fourteenth century, Volume 2, By James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1852)]


enter image description here

[Dictionary of obsolete and provincial English, Volume 2, By Thomas Wright (1857)]

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  • Lots of great stuff here @ermanen. The photo certainly does illustrate the point. I'm familiar with the Word Detective post, but it isn't supported by any evidence. I wonder if it's purely speculative.
    – Rusty Tuba
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 2:18
  • @RustyTuba: I guess there are speculations but also valid deductions. I tried to include evidence from a variety of sources. I can edit if people come up with more sources as well.
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 2:25
  • Your latest addition from the EDD certainly looks like a bit of the missing link! Though the reference in those cases is not to the owl's appearance, but to an owl's supposed daytime sleepiness, which is another thread that I've discovered. What does the "Brks." and "Cor." refer to? Berkshire and Cornwall?
    – Rusty Tuba
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 2:31
  • @RustyTuba: Most probably: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Country_dialects - Though, I might say that it is still related to appearance. For example, there is also "owl-eyed" (also owly-eyed and owly), which means drunk.
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 2:42
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    Gosh, sounds like my favorite uncle.
    – Rusty Tuba
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 3:17
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One of the Urban Dictionary entries asserts that "owly" is common in Nova Scotia: Urban Dictionary s.v. owly (punctuation and capitalization edited)

Out of sorts; grumpy
Used widely in Nova Scotia
When my mother called me to get up and get ready for school, I yelled "Do you have to be so loud?" She said, "Oh, feeling owly this morning, are we?"

ibid, s.v. owlie

To be grumpy, with extreme attitude. Angsty, curmudgeon-like. Think of a grumpy faced owl, that's being owlie.
Man, you're sure owlie this morning... go back to bed!

However, The English Dialect Dictionary: M-Q from 1903 has the following quote:
snippet showing the definition of 'owly' (quoted below)

OWLY, adj. Suf.1 [eu·li.] Stupid; tired.
I 'a bin up all night an fare kienda owly this morning.

The "Suf.1" refers to the following bibliography entry:

Suffolk — Suffolk Words and Phrases. By E. MOOR, 1823.

So that places the word squarely on the left coast of Britain, not North America. However, the meaning is slightly different/more literal: owls, being nocturnal, will blink at you stupidly in the morning, just like a person who has just pulled an all-nighter. The only crankiness involved is implied rather than stated outright: people who haven't slept enough tend to be out-of-sorts and grouchy. (In this sense, I think it is telling that both of the example quotes in Urban Dictionary have to do with getting up in the morning.)

Here's an example that is definitely not literal, and doesn't have anything to do with mornings, but I'm not sure whether it's really using "owly", or just playing on the sound of "scowly". Uncle Wiggily Longears (by Howard Roger Garis, 1915), p.152:

For, off in one corner sat Peetie, and oh! what a scowly-owly look was on Peetie's face. And in another corner was Jackie Bow Wow, and on his face was an even worse scowly-owly look.

The context is that there's no snow for sledding, so the children are in a bad mood/cranky. (Which is precisely the definition offered by Wiktionary, the only other modern dictionary [other than the even iffier Urban Dictionary] where I've found anything on this word.)

The following example seems to show that "owly" has something to do with appearance: The Mascot of Sweet Briar Gulch (by Henry Wallace Phillips, 1908, p.12)

“You’re looking kind of owly, old man—what’s up? Don’t you feel well?”

“Oh, Bud I I’m sick of everything this day—I don’t believe in the constitution of the United States, including the thirteenth amendment, nor the ten commandments, nor the attraction of gravitation, nor anything else—it’s all a damned lie.”

However, other examples don't seem to be based on appearance at all: American Mercury Magazine 1945, p.58 (snippet view only, so I can't tell who the author is)

"I was owly," he confessed. "I got so goddam low in the mouth and owly that I lost my head and wrote it. As soon as I mailed it, I knew it was a mistake."


Many of the examples I've found for this adjective are literal, in the sense that they're calling someone owl-like, whatever that means. Some of the examples are clearly derived from an owl's stereotypical daytime sleepiness, and as any night-owl living in this morning-person world will tell you, sleepiness = crankiness. The "feeling owly" examples seem to support this derivation. However, the "scowly-owly" and "looking kind of owly" examples imply a derivation based on an owl's appearance. I think the true answer is a bit of both: owly means grumpy both because owls often look grumpy, and because owls don't like to get up in the morning and thus are grumpy.

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  • Great stuff @Martha. Looks like those writers (save for whoever wrote the piece in American Mercury) all have New York and/or eastern Canadian connections.
    – Rusty Tuba
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 3:36
  • I have heard this use of "owly" all of my life, in the US southern states and western states. I have never even set foot in the US northeast or eastern Canada. Being nocturnally active myself, I know this is how I look when someone awakens me before I am ready.
    – Theresa
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 4:08
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Back in the days when there were only a handful or so of channels, children's television programming had several owl characters that seem somewhat grumpy and curmudgeonly:

"Sage the Owl" - The Herbs, BBC 1968

"Charley the Owl" - The New Zoo Revue, US (Syndicated 1972-1977)

...and "Mr. Owl" from the Tootsie Pop commercial, who eats the kid's lolly.

("Owl" from Winnie the Pooh was a bit gruff, also).

Assuming that past generations had a kind of "collective influence", (since we all watched the same stuff) I'd wager that the alternate (from wise) meaning of "owly" is a direct result of popular culture.

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  • The other answers provide texts and references from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Do you mean these stem from children's television?
    – Rusty Tuba
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 17:03
  • I only saw stupid and half-tired... I was commenting on the grumpy aspect of OP's question.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 23:44
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My Dad used this term to mean grumpy. He is the only one I ever heard use it until today when we were watching a reality show that takes place in British Columbia. Dads Grandfather was French Canadian so maybe that is the source.

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  • Thank you for your effort. Stack Exchange answers are “right” answers. Opinions or anecdotes can occasionally be useful, but they are usually not sufficient to show that an answer is right. An answer should include explanation, context, and supporting facts. For example, you could offer peer-reviewed evidence, such as the definition from a good online dictionary. This is what makes answers useful – to the asker, and to future visitors. See: “Real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions”.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 22:44

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