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I finally know why Smokey Bear doesn’t have a middle name … anymore.
When I was growing up, it was always Smokey THE Bear. Then, mysteriously, Smokey’s middle name began to disappear, becoming a sort of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t ex-the. The only explanation was, “You don’t say, ‘Santa THE Claus’ or ‘Easter THE Bunny.’”
Oh, yeah? Tell that to Winnie Pooh and Jack Ripper.
It turns out, the “the” came about in 1952 when Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote a song called “Smokey the Bear.” (Nelson and Rollins also wrote “Frosty the Snowman.”)
At last, the vital detail: The ex-the is all about getting the meter right in a song lyric!
Here’s the chorus:
“Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear
Prowlin' and a-growlin' and a sniffin' the air
He can find a fire before it starts to flame
That's why they call him Smokey,
That was how he got his name.”
Listen to Eddie Arnold’s 1952 recording at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Myz93sXW66Y and just try to sing along without the ex-the; it’s unbearable.
The song was part of the nonprofit Advertising Council’s public service program to prevent forest fires – apparently the longest running PSA series in the Ad Council’s 78-year history. Bambi was the first character featured on a fire-prevention poster, replaced by a bear named Smokey in August 1944.
A small black bear was discovered with burned paws clinging to a dead tree after the Capitan Gap wildfire that started May 4, 1950, in the Lincoln National Forest northeast and two counties away from Las Cruces. The fire destroyed 17,000 acres and orphaned the bear, who was rescued by a forest ranger, who named him Smokey. The little bear was flown to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to become the living symbol of fire prevention. Before he died Nov. 9, 1976, Smokey received so much fan mail that he was given his own zip code.
Smokey also became one of New Mexico’s most enduring icons, along with RALF (Roswell Alien Life Form) and Billy THE Kid. He (the bear) is buried in Smokey Bear (grrr!) Historical Park in Capitan. Alas, even his grave marker omits the ex-the.
“Smokey the Bear (sic) Lyrics and Music” is the title of the website with the Smokey song sheet music (www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/items/show/8214?collection=15). The sic obviously refers to the ex-the. Sigh.
What’s the grammar lesson here? Simply – and sadly – that the ex-the in Smokey THE Bear exists only in song. Saying it is like using a turn signal: polite but no longer considered necessary.
For me, the ex-the is simply an article of faith.
In any case, the world’s most famous bear likely would have turned 70 years old in 2020. Happy the birthday, Smokey!