Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're looking for the “-key” to success…
Q: Hey AWC – I got you those flaky pastries you really like from the bakery around the corner.
A: The Flaky Tart?
Q: Well, I thought she seemed quite competent…
A: Nooo, that’s the name of the bakery. Thanks for these, what do we owe you?
Q: My payment can be this week’s question – is it “flaky” or is it “flakey”?
A: This one’s actually quite easy. Some dictionaries accept both spellings, but the preferred spelling is without the “e” – flaky. Here in Australia, the Macquarie Dictionary lists only “flaky”.
Q: Well, okay, that’s easy. How do I remember that?
A: Flaky pastry. “Pastry” has no “e” in it, and neither does “flaky”.
Q: Okay, that might work.
A: Well, we’re going to just eat thes–
Q: Hang on, I’m not done yet. There’s another word. Is it “smoky” or “smokey”?
A: Ah, well, essentially it’s the same deal – the shorter “smoky” is definitely preferred. Whether it’s talking about fire, eyeshadow, music or bacon – it’s all the same.
Q: I wonder if those four things have ever been mentioned in the same sentence before?
A: Good point. While most dictionaries again confirm the existence of the alternative spelling “smokey” (including Macquarie this time), in America they exclusively go for the short version. The ONLY time, “smokey” gets a look in is as the proper noun: “Smokey the Bear” – their famous forest fire prevention spokespers… um… spokesbear.
Q: So is “smoky” far more popular?
A: Well, not really. A google search has both “smoky” and “smokey” neck and neck – perhaps an unfortunate effect of Smokey the Bear. He didn’t prevent forest fires; instead he sparked a mass shift in spelling.
Q: It’s almost too much to bear.
A: Is this where we’re at now? Bear puns?
A: Anyway, again we would recommend keeping things easy to remember and opting for the shorter “smoky” variety – otherwise you may be constantly putting out fires with language pedants.
A: Now if you’ll excuse us, these delicious pastries won’t eat themselves…
Q: Wait! One final one, if you will.
Q: Is it “whisky” or “whiskey”? I’m guessing, based on the others, it’ll be without the “e”…
A: Well actually, no. This one is a little different.
Q: Oooh, okay. Let me pour a glass while I listen.
A: So, is that bottle from Scotland?
Q: It is!
A: Then we bet the label has it spelt “WHISKY” – with no “e”…
Q: You are correct! And for your next trick?
A: The word “whisky” has been translated from Gaelic meaning “the water of life”… the early Scots spelt it as on your bottle, while the Irish went with “whiskey”.
Q: Aha, so it’s geographic!
A: Very much so. In fact, unlike most words, style here is overruled by geography. For example, in America, the Irish had a heavy influence and they spell their bottles as “whiskey” too. However, if they ever refer to a Scotch whisky, the convention is to drop the “e”…Some Southern US distilleries even favour Scottish methods, thus spelling their product “whisky”.
Q: So, usually you harp on about “be consistent” – but doing that here is actually a rather “whisky” strategy…
A: Groan. But yes, you’re right. If it’s from Ireland or America, it’s whiskey. But Scotland, Canada and Japan prefer whisky.
Q: And what if I’m just referring generically to the drop and not a particular country’s product?
A: Good question. It’s then that you can return to your shortest version rule and choose “whisky”.
Q: So the KEY to remembering the best generic versions is to not use “-KEY”?
A: That’s right! You’ll fit in much better using “-KY” instead.
Q: I’m sure there’s a joke I missed there…
A: Nope, nothing to see here. Move along, we have flaky pastries to eat…
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!