Smoky or Smokey Mountains: How it is really spelled?

Smokey or Smoky

Is it spelled Smoky or Smokey Mountains? (stock photo)


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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. 

Smoky vs Smokey

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.*

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spells “Smoky” without the extra “e” (stock photo)

So is it Smoky or Smokey?

Smoky is an adjective, a word used to describe or modify a noun. And most often it’s an adjective referring to the smelling of smoke. The mountains, shrouded in a light blue mist, are smoky. 

Smokey is a proper noun, most often the first name.

Your campfire may be smoky, as may be your eyeshadow, a smoky fireplace, smoky chimneys, a smoky stove or your uncle who hasn’t kicked the habit. 

The mountains are smoky. 

They are the Great Smoky Mountains. They are not the Smokey Mountains. In fact, the mountains were named thus by the Cherokee, who consider the mountains a sacred place. And Smoky is the correct and accepted spelling.

As an aside, the smoky appearance is vapor molecules released by vegetation in the mountains that scatter blue light from the sky. It is actually not smoke.

It should be fairly clear, and not at all smoky, except for some people who messed it up for the rest of us. Indeed, gave birth to all this confusion.

And the trail leads us to the U.S. Forest Service.

Read Also: Are the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smoky Mountains the same?

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 cartoon 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. Hence, the bear’s time in the limelight ensued spelling chaos that was unleashed upon the world. 

Smokey became a national phenomenon. It started 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. Specifically, the iconic “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

That slogan lasted five decades. In 2001, “forest fires” was changed to “wildfires” a change we all completely and irrevocably ignored. 

Was there a real Smokey the Bear?

In 1950, a five-pound, three month old American black bear cub was found after a New Mexico wildfire. And he 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 that whoever named the poor guy was something of a moron. As a result, the bear was quickly renamed Smokey, after the iconic bear. 

Read Also: Why are they called the Smoky Mountains?

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, or the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” or Smokey Robinson. 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. Appropriately, 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. And now we need a breath of fresh air.

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.   

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4 thoughts on “Smoky or Smokey Mountains: How it is really spelled?”

  1. Living in Tn. And on Facebook showing pictures I have taken ove the 14 years I have lived here, and during the four seasons of the mountains, I write Smoky Mountains not Smokey Mountains. You can also use Smokie Mountains I have been told, but ai don’t.

  2. Hate spell check it always changes the words I write I did not miss spell the words I wrote.

  3. I live this but while I was there this past Spring, in the Smoky Mountains, is it the “Smokys” or the “Smokies”? Saw both.

  4. It’s Smokey Bear not Smokey the Bear. The “the” was added in a song later for cadence.

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