Dear Word Detective: When I was growing up in rural Nova Scotia, my mother often used a word to describe my sister or myself when we were in irritable moods. I have never known how to spell this word, but it sounds like “owly,” as in “Your sister’s in an owly mood” or “Why are you so owly?” Anything you could tell me about this word would be gratefully appreciated! — Lady G.

That’s a good question. Incidentally, of all the possible introductory biographical clauses one could encounter in such a question, “when I was growing up in Nova Scotia” ranks as one of the most evocative and romantic. It’s right up there with “growing up in the Cotswolds” and “as a child on the moors of Cornwall,” and certainly beats my “when I was growing up in suburban Connecticut.” Technically, I suppose I can claim to have grown up in New England, but that’s only sightly better, and whatever faint cachet it confers collapses completely when folks discover that I don’t like seafood.

Speaking of preconceptions, it’s interesting how many people write me about an odd word or phrase their parents or grandparents used, while themselves clearly harboring the suspicion that Granny might have simply invented the term. Yet this is almost never the case. Even the strangest figures of speech heard dimly in one’s long-lost childhood usually turn out to have a reasonable explanation.

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.

13 comments on this post.
  1. Nancy Stairs:

    I grew up on PEI (near NS) and my parents used “owly” and I still do too. Nice to know about it, as having lived in OH and NC and western Canada I have gotten some funny looks when I used the term

  2. Ellie:

    Thank you so much for this explanation of “owly”.

    I grew up in the Upper Ottawa Valley with its own distintive way of speaking and I still use this term almost 50 years later.

  3. Alan:

    I (and both my parents) grew up in Wisconsin. My mother uses owly in an apparently related sense, to refer to a mildly upset stomach, as in “I don’t think I’ll have any desert, my stomach is still a little owly”.


    I learned “owly” from my parents who grew up in northern Illinois.

    I once rescued an owl chick which had left its nest well before it was able to fly, probably by some accident. I tried to feed it, but it was extremely defensive, puffing up its down and attacking the proffered food. This behavior was unlike that of many other unfledged birds I had fed, which soon were eager to accept food. The “owl-let” ate after I left, but never stopped bristling and hissing at me. I surmised that the term “owly” had derived from this unpleasant disposition.

  5. Lisa:

    I used the term when speaking to a British friend of mine about being owly (meaning cranky). He didn’t get the meaning. I’m from Minnesota and he currently lives in Florida. My parents (from Wisconsin and Illinois) use the term. Thanks for the explanation, because now I understand this is a colloquialism.

  6. Meredith:

    I too wrote “owly” yesterday and felt bound to add that it was a term from my Wisconsin mother many years ago. Interesting.

  7. Andrea:

    Apparently “owly” has made its way to the Great Plains. I’m in Nebraska, I use it, and fellow Nebraskans understand it this way.

    I’d add that someone who’s owly is in that kind of mood where nothing can please them.

  8. Scott Swanson:

    I came here looking for an etymology as a friend of mine had posted a picture of an owl. I grew up in northwest Iowa, and it was a term that seemed to be common in my family. I want to say that “owly” was slightly different from “crabby”, but I cannot say how, when, or where.

  9. Allan:

    My parents grew up on the Canadian Prairie – Manitoba – and brought this phrase with them to BC where I was born. I had no idea it wasn’t in the dictionary until my spell-check pointed this fact out to me. It’s not on the online dictionary I frequently use, either. Where does it come from? Lucky thing I found it here! Thank you, Word Detective. I’m a little closer to my Prairie roots.

  10. Susan:

    We are from Saskatchewan (also Canadian Prairies) and we have ‘Owly’ as being out of sorts and CRAB as well. I wasn’t sure how to spell it, or if it was a word or not. Loved this site and the explanation. LOVE Geoffrey L’s story about his owly owl! Go Geoff!

  11. Kathy:

    I am from Wisconsin, too, and used this word often. It’s pretty common in this neck of the woods. (another idiom, eh?)

  12. David Lewis:

    My parents and grandparents, all from Minnesota,
    used the term “Owly” in regards to stormy weather.
    We spent a lot of time on a lake and when it looked as if it would come up and be stormy, windy and wet, my dad would say “It’s looking owly out, better stay indoors.

  13. Craig:

    I heard it as a synonym for grumpy as a child in northern Minnesota.

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