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‘Smokey’ or ‘Smoky’?

When you're describing the smell of burning wood, the right word is "smoky." Smokey Bear gave us the other spelling.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
A smoky forest fire

We’re now solidly into fall, and in the western United States, where I live, we’ve had horrible smoky summers for the last few years because of forest fires. But this year wasn’t so bad, and I’m feeling a little less worried now that the temperatures are getting colder. And feeling grateful for getting a reprieve from a smoky summer this year got me thinking about the word “smoky.”

Between Smokey Robinson, Smokey Bear, and the movie “Smokey and the Bandit,” which are all spelled with an E, you can be forgiven for thinking the correct spelling for the smell of burned wood is “smokey,” but it’s not. The correct spelling is "smoky" (with no E).

The correct spelling for the smell of burned wood is 'smoky.'

The confusion is largely Smokey Bear’s fault. The poor guy has more important things to worry about—like preventing forest fires—but when the U.S. Forest Service gave the cartoon bear his name in 1944, they spelled it with an E to make it different from the word “smoky,” and all the bear’s time in the limelight led to spelling confusion. 

Then, in the mid-1970s, truckers started calling police officers Smokey Bear or just Smokey because state trooper hats looked a lot like the hat worn by our fire fighting friend, Smokey Bear. The smokey in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” was a Texas county sheriff named Buford T. Justice, played by Jackie Gleason. 

When “smokey” is a nickname for an officer of the law, it’s spelled S-M-O-K-E-Y, with an E, but otherwise, drop the E.

When 'smokey' is a nickname for an officer of the law, it's spelled with an E.

Here’s a Quick and Dirty Tip to remember that a policeman or ranger’s nickname is “Smokey,” with an E: Think of officers as keeping their eyes on you—eyes, a word with two E’s.

Think of officers as keeping their eyes on you—eyes, a word with two E’s.

Examples of 'Smokey' and 'Smoky'

Tina: [concerned about a sniper outside] But what happens if he hits the gas tank?

Matt Helm: Smokey the Bear won’t like it. Get in.

— Daliah Lavi playing Tina and Dean Martin playing Matt Helm in the movie "The Silencers"

[cooking a mushroom over the chimney] The key is to keep turning it to get the smoky flavor nice and even. 

— Patton Oswalt voicing Remy in the movie "Ratatouille"

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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