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I'm looking for the best BE substitute for the AmE word "ornery" in the phrase "an ornery bunch".

Complicating the task for this second-language speaker of English is that according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, "ornery" means "bad-tempered and combative" in AmE whereas it means "bad-tempered or difficult to deal with" in BE.

Does this mean that BE speakers tend to understand the word "ornery" slightly differently than Americans generally do (that BE speakers may perceive ornery characters as not necessarily being bad-tempered?)?

Also, are there any synonyms that BE speakers usually prefer as substitutes for "ornery", or do BE speakers rather use several words to cover the AmE meaning of "ornery" (in the latter case, for my task: instead of "an ornery bunch, perhaps "a coarse and combative bunch"?)?

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    "difficult to deal with" and "combative" is a distinction without a difference. "that British speakers usually prefer" would be a matter of opinion unless you had at your disposal a huge database of spoken British English that covers all socioeconomic and educational groups, all contexts, all registers, etc.
    – TimR
    Oct 1, 2023 at 10:59
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    If you mean British English [which I usually recognise as BrE or BrEng rather than BE] then most Brits just consider it to be an American word anyway, so the meaning is adopted - whether entirely accurately or not is possibly the only contention. I don't think I've ever heard the word used outside of US TV/movies.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 1, 2023 at 11:15
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    Further to my remark above. Ngram, for example, often cited here, can be skewed and very misleading. The BrE vs AmE NGram story for "cussed,ornery" is about the same. But toss "cantankerous" into the mix and it leads the pack for BrE, though it is pretty much part of the pack in AmE. Where I live, locals don't call people "cusséd", so there are regional factors to consider as well, and I suppose the same to be true of BrE.
    – TimR
    Oct 1, 2023 at 11:33
  • "coarse and combative" are both vague words; coarse can mean a huge range of things, and even combative can be literal or metaphorical. If you want a specific word, provide a specific context. The phrase "ornery bunch" so strongly suggests the Old West, it's certainly a cliche and perhaps a compound noun in its own right, and would be fine even in a UK English text that was about the Old West.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 1, 2023 at 11:59
  • @Stuart F: "If you want a specific word, provide a specific context." Thanks. I wonder if the following info helps, though, as the ornery buch in question has no British relation: they are a group of quarrymen in 15th century Tuscany. TimR's suggestion of 'cantankerous' was already high on my list. Could you suggest something better?
    – Swenglish
    Oct 1, 2023 at 13:02

5 Answers 5

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From the comments, as well as most dictionaries, it seems that ornery is understood by some British people but is still viewed as an 'American' word. They don't seem to use it actively.


I suggest stroppy as a distinctly British alternative. I'm not a BE speaker, so I'm not sure quite how commonly it's used and whether it fits perfectly or not.

Wiktionary gives:

stroppy:
(UK, Australia, New Zealand, slang) Ornery, fractious, belligerent, or obstreperous, and hence difficult to deal with.

  • 1989, Kenneth Branagh, Beginning:
    In this case, the application of the famous method was a little shaky. To be fair, the director was dealing with a pretty stroppy cast.
  • 2004, Simon Brett, The Hanging in the Hotel‎:
    Her shape and posture shadowed her daughter′s, though Kerry carried herself with more attitude, a stroppier jutting of the hips than her mother.
  • 2010, Gillian Bloxham, W. Doyle Gentry, Anger Management For Dummies‎:
    Even today, women who show signs of anger and who express themselves in some assertive way may be labelled stroppy for doing so.
  • 2010, Alexandra Bell, Rising to the Deadline:
    The people who actually produced the paper, mainly the printers, were a stroppier lot, with a more aggressive union.
  • 2010, Madeleine Wickham, Mini Shopaholic:
    Davina told me earlier that Luke was the stroppiest patient she'd ever had and that he'd given her a lecture on how inefficient and time-wasting her medical was.

"A stroppy bunch" returns multiple results on Google.

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  • Thanks, Heartspring. You might have nailed it as both "ornery" and "stroppy" are informal language. If perhaps a native British English speaker could weigh in on this, too?
    – Swenglish
    Oct 1, 2023 at 14:55
  • @Swenglish - no problem. I agree that a BE-speaker's attestation would be useful, which is why this is a wiki answer. (Not sure why your question has been downvoted) Oct 1, 2023 at 15:01
  • Yes, stroppy is fine for 'bad-tempered or difficult to deal with' and reasonably common in the UK. Nov 29, 2023 at 17:02
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Another word the Brits love to use is "bloody-minded," which fits my impression of the semantic range of "ornery" a bit more closely than some of the other suggestions made. As an Australian I don't use either myself - one of our Prime Ministers famously used the word "recalcitrant" in the '90s.

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One good synonym for ornery is crotchety, which to my knowledge exists in both dialects. Cambridge defines it as "often in a bad mood and easily annoyed."

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To put this in the answer space, even if it is predominantly anecdotal.

Most Brits just consider it to be an American word anyway, so the meaning is adopted - whether entirely accurately or not is possibly the only contention. I don't think I've ever heard the word used outside of US TV/movies.

It's what I'd call a "disney word', from movies where no-one ever swears worse than 'dangit', farmers & woodsmen all wear check shirts, dungarees & grisly beards; often found accompanying the words 'critters' or 'varmints'.

I don't think that there's a really good 'direct translation' to BrE, but alternatives might include…

Obstroculous.
This is not actually a word ever found in a dictionary, but is common enough in conversation. The dictionary alternative would be obstreperous which I don't think I've ever heard anyone actually say.

Cantankerous - this really does seem to be used in an 'old people' abstraction, you wouldn't really use it of a child. Impudent or wilful might be used instead.

Miriam Webster has this list in its thesaurus, only a few of which might be directly interchangeable.

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OED

Contrary (adj): 3.b.Of antagonistic or untoward disposition, perverse, obstinately self-willed; contrarious. (Commonly pronounced conˈtrāry.) colloquial and dialect.

1850 ‘Gals is nat'lly made contrary; and so, if you thinks they've gone one road, it is sartin you'd better go t'other.’ H. B. Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin viiCitation details for H. B. Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin … 1920 They were like that; conceited and contrary. R. Macaulay, Potterism i. i. §4

ornery (adj.): = ordinary adj.; commonplace, inferior, unpleasant; (now) esp. mean, cantankerous, contrary.

1962 There the sheep were in one of their orneriest moods, determined not to get their nice Merino wool wet. G. MacEwan, Blazing Old Cattle Trail xxi. 143

1993 She comes across as a ‘character’—plain-speaking but flirtatious, ornery but feminine. Daily Telegraph 14 April 18/1

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