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.