Is it smoky or smokey?

If you’re thinking about the adjective (e.g. a whisky with smoky notes), the standard and more frequent spelling is smoky. However, smokey is an acceptable variant – though certain people will probably consider it wrong.

The other day a friend was shocked and dismayed to see the spelling smoky on a packet of Marks and Spencer food, was sure that he had always spelled it smokey and found the other spelling new-fangled. What is the truth of the matter?

It depends where you look. The OED has as its headword smoky. However, both Merriam-Webster online and Oxford online give smoky as the headword, with smokey as a variant. M-W puts the words ‘less commonly’ before smokey. And the OED lists smokey among the variant forms, with the note that it is common in the U.S. from 1800 onwards.

So, what’s going on?

In theory there’s a simple rule, but, as we all know, ‘It’s the exception that proves the rule’. And the rule is: When you add the letter -y to a noun ending in –e to create an adjective from that noun, you tend to drop that –e. Think of noise to noisy, bone to bony, breeze to breezy, and so forth. Simples, eh?

Well, not quite so simples. While there can be no doubt about many such words (chancy, crazy, easy, gory, greasy, grimy, hasty, icy, mangy, etc.), there are also several where dictionaries show both forms. Examples are fluk(e)y, lac(e)y, pac(e)y, and spik(e)y. And, of course, smokey.

But hang on! Surely there can only be one correct spelling of a word?!? It would be nice if that were true. But just think of the differences between U.S. and World English spelling (favor vs. favour, and so forth). Correctness can be relative.

Now, in the case of smok(e)y there is also the proper noun, which can only be spelled Smokey, as in Smokey Robinson (and the Miracles) and Smokey the Bear, who is a mascot of the U.S. forest service. (Apparently the -ey spelling was deliberately chosen to differentiate him from the adjective.)

Is it an issue?

It can become one. In 2018 there were major fires in the U.S. West and people tweeted about the resulting smoke using either spelling. There’s an investigation here. According to it, as already noted, the OED suggests that smokey is particularly common in the U.S. A professor interviewed for the article suggests that this arose because of a nineteenth-century U.S. misspelling. I’m not convinced, because the OED shows the smokey spelling in a much earlier dialect glossary: 1639   J. Smyth in Glouc. Gloss. (1890) 201   If many gossips sit against a smokey chimney the smoke will bend to the fairest.

And, according to the OED, a Smokey in certain dialects is a hedge-sparrow (1894).

For what it’s worth, the 2014 Oxford corpus shows 4,295 examples of smoky and 453 of smokey (so a roughly 1:10 ratio). Perhaps surprisingly, British English is the variety that uses that spelling more than any other variety.

As a footnote, Arbroath smokies are spelled thus, and always will be.
And the singular, for the avoidance of doubt (thanks, Margaret!) is smokie, though personally I rather like smoakie. 


  1. The singular for Arbroath smokies seems to be smokie, according to dictionaries and what passes for my memory. Sorts out the problem, dunnit? Although smoky/smokey are adjectives, a smokie is a noun. Which may or may not make a difference.
    I’m going to go back to worrying about Brexit now.


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