WELL, MY DREAD secret is out. I have been unmasked as one of the betes noires of recent Washington history -- the monster who devoured the final "e" in employee, touching off a decade of reader heartburn and hostility.

Last Sunday, reflecting on the e-word frenzy, Post Ombudsman Joe Laitin wrote that I had bravely come forward and confessed my responsibility for mutilating employee and that my justification for doing so was employe's indisputable brevity. More precisely, about a year ago I gave the Om a brief memo on why we use that spelling -- explaining that it was neither fluke nor fiat but a fait accompli, one determined by our dictionary of choice and accepted by other Post editors at the time.

Since employe first appeared in our pages in 1978, it has inspired uncounted phone calls to the ombudsmen and letters to the editor, which usually appeared under the headline "eeeeeeeee (cont'd)." Nor do the writers and callers merely express a scholarly demur. They are vicious ("an abomination"), bitter ("What do I tell my students?"), corrosive ("Please print for me your spelling of the noun that Webster's New Collegiate defines as 'a blade of leather or rubber set on a handle and used for spreading, pushing or wiping liquid material on, across or off a surface, as a window") and occasionally unprintable.

How can this be? One tiny word! In fact, one tiny letter, the most commonplace of the 26. Presidents come and go, summits are ascended and descended, scandals flash and fade -- yet after 10 years, the loss of that "e" still enrages a substantial part of our population. What is the explanation? What does this say about lexicography? What does it say about Washington? I have some theories:

Repeated exposure. Assume that 1) employe appears in the Post a modest 20 times a day, 2) the Post's daily circulation (now about 800,000) has averaged about 700,000 over the past 10 years and 3) each copy of the paper is seen by three people. That's 42 million (42 million!) potential encounters with employe each day -- a numbing 15 billion a year for a decade. If only one in a thousand of today's 2.4 million potential daily readers really gives a damn about employee and if that reader sees only two of those 20 employes per edition, we can reasonably expect about 4,800 blown gaskets every day.

Word obsession. Much of Washington's population makes a living by reading, writing or both. Words are tools of power. Last year's jockeying over the terms Iranscam, Irangate, Iranamok, Iran-contra scandal, Iran-contra affair involved more than than pride of authorship; each variation had a slightly different nuance and the winner (Iran-contra affair, as it turned out) would go far in determining how the nation, and history, viewed thematter. In Washington, one doesn't mess with words (or letters, it seems) without explanation and accountability.

Sheer frustration. Even potholes get fixed after a year or two. But Post readers have been screaming about employe since Carter was president.

So why did The Post switch to employe in the first place and why, above all, is it still used? It happened this way:

In 1974, I was tapped to update the Post stylebook -- a manual (now 223 pages) detailing how the Post spells, punctuates, uses titles and so on. Newspapers have stylebooks because needs and preferences vary and because many style matters have no agreed-upon "correct" form. And the stylebooks must be updated periodically because English, especially American English, is alive and hard to pin down. One of my colleagues affectionately describes our language as "grubby Anglo-Saxon -- together with a little Celtic and Old Norse -- grafted uncomfortably onto parvenu French, and then taught for centuries according to the rules of Latin syntax."

And that stew never stops bubbling. Words are invented or slip into the language (as did "airhead" in the new Random House Unabridged). Social change prompts style questions, most recently involving race and gender. (Do we capitalize black? No, nor white. Do we use chairperson? Only if it's a formal title and there's no way out). Local usage varies. And some editors simply want to experiment with style and language. The Chicago Tribune used simplified spelling (altho, iland, hefer, lether) for years until readers rebelled; Time magazine's controversial Timestyle, built on backward construction, manufactured adjectives and loaded nouns and verbs ("Snarled the grim-visaged union boss, 'I got no comment . . . .'") has all but vanished today.)

In compiling a stylebook, an editor can make make thousands of individual and arbitrary decisions about language (the Government Printing Office stylebook has 44 pages on compound words). Or the editor can go for broad rules with as few exceptions as possible. I followed the latter course, comforted by a philosophic observation in the Oxford University Press style manual: "If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad." And that was the fateful decision that led us, inexorably, to employe.

We had already determined that Webster's New World Dictionary of the American language would be our authority on spelling, with Webster's Third New International Dictionary as backup -- the same dictionaries used by the wire services and The New York Times. And since variant spellings are common, our stylebook provides this general guideline:

Webster's New World lists variant spellings jointly if usage "is about evenly divided between them" but adds that "in no case is the first spelling considered 'more correct.'" Variants are placed at the end of an entry if usage is less frequent . . . . When variants are coequal, The Post style is generally to use the shorter, newer or American form.

That fundamental rule decided a lot of things. Ipso facto, our spelling would be ax instead of axe, mama instead of mamma, glamor instead of glamour -- and employe instead of employee.

Nor was The Post alone. The Baltimore Sunpapers, The Detroit News, The Miami Herald and The Chicago Tribune all used employe in the mid-'70s. The Tribune, in fact, went so far as to specify employe as the masculine and employee as the feminine.

Of course, we could have declared an exception for employee. The New York Times and the wire services did. And we, in fact, made exceptions for cigarette and demagogue and a handful of other words, probably because someone felt that the short forms simply looked too silly. But employe stood. The stylebook was circulated -- section by finished section and then as a whole -- among perhaps 20 Post editors. Dozens of changes were suggested and made, but I recall no one finger-pointing at employe.

Another revision of the Post stylebook is now in the works, and some months ago we quietly decided to return to employee when the book is issued. But with my neck now fully exposed and the assault on the barricades mounting ("Liberte'! Egalite'! Employee!"), we passed the word to the staff late last week, to my great personal relief, to restore the missing "e" forthwith. You may have spotted it already. If not, please note that The Post's official spelling of the e-word is now: Employee

Robert Webb is an editor of Outlook.