ornery

There’s plenty about Christmas to make people crusty. Of course, there are many people who don’t cotton to the religious side of it at all, and that’s one thing. But for those who do – and even for many of those who don’t – the whole rush and crush and commercial spectacle of it, really a reheated Saturnalia frozen dinner with an overspiced commercial junk sauce poured all over it, can be vexing. And we all know how we, as humans, can be so easily vexed. People are prone to wishing death over ambiguities of grammar that have no effect on comprehension. So of course the biggest holiday madness of the year is going to be prime provocation for making the ordinary person quite ornery. But then there’s the music.

Yes, OK, not everyone likes “Christmas music,” that’s true. There’s no music so wonderful that someone won’t dislike it. With Christmas music, there is indeed an awful lot of dreck and schmaltz (two Yiddish words, by the way, so I guess that’s irony). But there’s also a lot of really nice music that was written for Christmas or is at least mainly sung at Christmas. We really have to distinguish between disliking “Christmas music” and disliking all Christmas music.

One of my favourite tunes that are heard mainly at Christmas is “I Wonder as I Wander.” If you’re not familiar with it – or even if you are – have a listen to this duet do a sweet and not overdone version: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQWqkOi175k. I rather think anyone who dislikes that song must be more than a little peevish.

The song, as you will learn in greater depth if you watch this little video, was “collected” by John Jacob Niles in July, 1933; he got it, or anyway some of it, from the daughter of a revivalist preacher in Murphy, North Carolina. The preacher and his family were about to be run out of town for being a public nuisance – camping in the town square, hanging their wash on the Confederate monument, generally being common and low-grade and disagreeable – but they needed money to buy the gas to get out, and the daugher, Annie Morgan, managed to get a couple of dollars off of Niles by singing him bits of this song that had been written who knows when by who knows who. Niles took what he heard and tidied it up and wrote some more.

Anyway, if you’re getting impatient to find out what on earth all this has to do with ornery, well, if you actually listened to the song – I sure hope you did, and if you didn’t, I think you should know I can see how many times people click on each link in my blog articles, so you’re not getting away with it – you will have noticed this line:

For poor ornery people like you and like I

Now, some people in their transcriptions of the lyrics have put that as o’n’ry or similar forms, the idea being that it’s just some poor-folks version of ordinary. But the thing is, although that’s where ornery comes from – an ordinary so ordinary that it’s lost some of its teeth and just sort of rolls through the mouth without a stop – that’s not the current meaning, and wasn’t by the the mid-1800s. It’s possible that the original author of the song may have just meant ‘ordinary’, but more likely he or she didn’t. No, the sense is – and already commonly was by the time the song was written – not just ‘common’ but ‘unpleasant’ and ‘mean’ and ‘willful’ and ‘cantankerous’ and ‘contrary’ and ‘disputatious’.

It’s a good word for that sort of thing. The orn may not sound pointed but it has echos of horns, and the word as a whole seems made to be growled in a curmudgeonly way by someone played by, say, Jerry Orbach. It curls around in the mouth like the spheres of an orrery (the motions of the celestial orbs reduced to a mechanism cranked like clockwork in a little space), groaning in mournful irony. The retroflex /r/ sound is often associated with the very common, from rural folk to pirates; posh people are thought of as dropping it.

This mulishness of ornery gives the song part of its force. It’s one thing to say that someone like Jesus came to die for ordinary people; it’s another to say plainly that he came to die for basic a-holes and rotten jerks. Those cretins who drive so rudely you hope they wrap themselves around a tree sometime. The people who can’t manage to be nice even for a couple of seconds in a shopping mall. Their screaming children, too. The public nuisances.

Also people who grumble about Christmas and Christmas music. People like you and like I. And, by the way, people who get exercised about turns of grammar such as “people like you and like I.” Ornery all. It’s very ordinary to be ornery.

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