Smokey or Smoky: What’s the Difference?

Some English words have multiple spellings. For many of these words, the alternative spellings are trivial- some people choose one, some people choose another, and many readers might not notice a difference, or care.

That is not the case with Smokey and smoky. Smokey has a single, clearly defined and well established usage case that separates it from smoky. If you don’t already know it, and choose to continue reading, you’re going to find out what that usage case is.

What is the Difference Between Smokey and Smoky?

In this article, I will compare Smokey vs. smoky, and I will use each in a sentence. I will also explain a mnemonic that should help you decide whether to use Smokey or smoky in your writing.

When to Use Smoky

smokey versus smoky What does smoky mean? Smoky is an adjective. It means characterized by an abundance of smoke. A 1950s pool hall would have been smoky. So too would Chicago, during the Great Chicago Fire.

Smoky could be used in a more abstract sense to describe anything wispy or dark, like tendrils of smoke. Someone’s eye makeup might be smoky, and so might the vocals on a blues recording.

Smoky can also describe a flavor profile, in which case it means tasting like smoke.

Here are some examples of the various uses of smoky as an adjective:

  • I went inside the pit house, but the air was smoky from the barbecuing meat, and my eyes began to water.
  • Shalane wore smoky eyeshadow to the party, to make her blue eyes pop.
  • Dad’s grilled salmon has a delicious, smoky, hickory flavor.
  • A chunky avocado salsa verde — slightly sweet, thanks to agave, and slightly smoky, thanks to a touch of pasilla chili — and a Key lime wedge come on the side. –New York Post

When to Use Smokey

Definition of smoky definition and definition of smokey definitionWhat does Smokey mean? Smokey cannot be used as an adjective. To do so would be a spelling error.

Smokey is, however, a proper noun in the case of Smokey Bear or Smokey the Bear, a long-running advertising mascot for the U.S. Forest Service. It is interesting to note that Smokey Bear’s creators spelled his name this way intentionally, to differentiate it from the adjective smoky.

The sentence below is an example of the correct usage of Smokey. Remember, this is the only context in which Smokey is correct:

  • Smokey Bear says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
  • Smokey Bear (a.k.a. “Smokey the Bear”) turns 70 this year, and he’s celebrating with a softer, social-media-friendly ad campaign. –The Washington Post

Smokey is only used as a proper noun. It is also a common surname.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define smoky and define smokeyHere is a helpful trick to remember smoky vs. Smokey.

You can only use Smokey as a proper noun, which usually takes the form of one of the most famous American advertising mascots of the 20th century. In all other instances, use the adjective smoky instead.

You can remember that Smokey is a character, not an adjective, since Smokey Bear frequently reminds Americans that “only you can prevent forest fires.” Forest fires is spelled with an E, just like Smokey.

The E these words have in common should make it easy to remember that Smokey is only ever a proper noun.


Is it smoky or Smokey? Smoky and Smokey only have one letter’s difference in spelling, but they are not interchangeable.

  • Smoky is an adjective
  • Smokey is the name of a well-known advertising mascot for the U.S. Forest Service.

Smokey shares an E with the phrase “forest fires,” which should help you remember that Smokey only refers to the mascot Smokey Bear. For other uses, stick with smoky.

You can look back over this article next time you have trouble deciding whether the word you’re looking for is smoky or Smokey.