The great philosopher Gallagher, in between abusing fruit with a giant wood sledgehammer, once mused: “We drive through a parkway and park in a driveway.”
It’s funny because it’s true.
The English language, much like Gallagher’s career, is a complex system of confusing and confounding rules that apply in all situations … until they don’t.
Different people have different hang-ups. My particular hang-up is homophones.
They are my arch enemy.
They are the Vader to my Obi-wan, the Stones to my Beatles, the Gallagher mallet to my tasty watermelon, if you will.
Homophones – a subset of homonyms, if you are wondering – are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently.
Dual-Duel. Flew-Flu. Gorilla-Guerrilla. Knew-New. Their, They’re and there.
And, yes, Smoky-Smokey.
It’s not that I don’t know the difference. I do.
It’s just that my writing process, such as it is, often feels like riding a roller coaster without a seat belt. I’m just barely hanging on.
I’ve been trained to write quickly and on deadline. Though I don’t speak the word aloud, it’s an aural process.
I hear what I’m writing in my head as I type.
I’m not thinking so much about the meaning of the words as I am trying to capture the thoughts as they process through my brain, down my arm through my fingers and onto the keyboard.
Homophones – and often punctuation – are casualties of the process. My brain orders my fingers to type a “there” but it doesn’t always specify which one and my fingers hardly ever stop to ask.
So sometimes I type Smoky when I mean Smokey.
And sometimes I type Smokey when I mean Smoky.
And sometimes I screw up the “their, they’re, there” thing and strangers yell at me on the internet and call me an idiot.
So, once and for all, let’s settle the great smoky-smokey debate.*
So is it Smoky or Smokey?
Smoky is an adjective, a word used to describe or modify a noun. The mountains, shrouded in a light blue mist, are smoky.
Your campfire may be smoky, so may be your eyeshadow or your uncle who hasn’t kicked the habit.
The mountains are smoky.
They are the Great Smoky Mountains.
It should be fairly clear, and not at all smoky, except for some people who messed it up for the rest of us.
Those people are the U.S. Forest Service.
Smokey the Bear, with an “e”
In 1942, the forest service was looking for a mascot to help its campaign to raise forest fire awareness.
A bear was picked for the job and he was named in honor of “Smokey” Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department hero who suffered burns and blindness in a daring 1922 rescue.
On Aug. 9, 1944, just four years after the park was dedicated by FDR, Smokey the Bear was born and spelling chaos was unleashed upon the world.
Smokey became a national phenomenon, starting with a simple poster featuring the bear in a campaign hat and jeans, pouring water on a campfire and declaring, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!”
It’s ok. They were still workshopping the slogan.
It only took them three more years to hit upon the slogan we all remember, the iconic “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
That slogan lasted five decades until “forest fires” was changed to “wildfires” in 2001, a change we all completely and irrevocably ignored.
In 1950, a five-pound, three month old American black bear cub found after a New Mexico wildfire became the living version of Smokey.
At first the bear, who had climbed a tree to avoid the fire and suffered burns on his paws and hind legs, was called Hotfoot Teddy.
But everyone immediately recognized whoever named the bear that was something of a moron and quickly renamed Smokey, after the iconic bear.
Smokey lived at the National Zoo for 26 years, developed a love for peanut butter sandwiches and, after his attempts to pair with a female named “Goldie” failed, adopted Little Smokey, an orphaned bear cub from the Lincoln Forest.
The 70s were a wild time, man.
So when you’re writing about the living icon pair from New Mexico who became a celebrity at the national zoo, remember this: Smokey is a proper noun, not a descriptor.
The mountains are smoky.
Smokey the Bear is interred in a garden at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico, next to an interpretive center dedicated to wildfire prevention and Smokey himself.
The plaque at his grave reads, “This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear … the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation.”
See? It’s just that simple.
Now just get my brain to explain that to my fingers and we’ll be in business.
Did you know about the reason behind the difference in spelling? Let us know in the comments.
*Writers’s Note: All of this comes with the caveat that most dictionaries recognize smokey as a less preferred, less often used but acceptable version of smoky. I directly blame the Forest Service.