Hebrew and English don't use the same alphabet, which is why you see so many different spellings for "Hanukkah."
Sunday marked the start of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, and since its an eight-day celebration, we’re right in the middle of it. Hanukkah recognizes the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in the first century B.C. It had been desecrated by invaders from Syria, before they were defeated by Judas Maccabeus. To honor him, the celebration is sometimes called the “Feast of the Maccabees.”
It’s also called the “Festival of Lights.” That’s because it’s celebrated by the lighting of candles, one on each successive day of the holiday. By the eighth day, eight candles are burning. They’re usually held in a menorah, a candelabra with nine candleholders. Yes, I said nine. Eight of them hold the main candles, and a ninth holds the shammash, a so-called “servant” candle that’s used to light the other eight. Very convenient!
‘Hanukkah’ and ‘menorah’ are Hebrew words
“Hanukkah” is a Hebrew word that means inauguration, dedication, or consecration. “Menorah” is also a Hebrew word. It literally means “lampstand” or “candlestick.” It shares the same root word as the Arabic “manāra,” which means “lighthouse” or “minaret.” Torches were often placed high in the minarets of Islamic fortresses, making these cylindrical towers beacons, or lighthouses, shining across the dark North African night.
How do you spell ‘Hanukkah’?
Now comes the big question. How do you spell “Hanukkah”? Sometimes you see it with an “h” at the beginning—other times with a “ch.” Sometimes there’s one “k” in the middle—sometimes two. And sometimes there’s an “ah” at the end—but sometimes just an “a.” What’s a careful speller to do?
The short answer is … there’s no right answer.
Hanukkah’s many spellings are the result of transliteration
That’s because the word “Hanukah” has not been translated from the Hebrew. It’s been transliterated. That’s what happens when you replace letters or characters from one language with those from another. In the process, you’re trying your best to reproduce the sounds of the original language.
The problem is some languages have sounds that others don’t. For example, English doesn’t have the throaty “r” sound you hear in the way the French pronounce the word “Paris,” or the rolling “r” sound in the Spanish “perro.”
It also doesn’t have the rough “h” sound that starts the Hebrew version of “Hanukkah.” It’s something like the “ch” sound in the German “Bach”; you may have heard it in the Hebrew word “chutzpah.” Since English doesn’t have that sound, an “h” is sometimes used in “Hanukkah,” but other times a “ch.” To make things more complicated, the first letter in the Hebrew version is pronounced differently in modern Hebrew than it was in classical Hebrew (2,3).
In the same vein, when Hanukkah is transliterated, the “k” is sometimes doubled to reflect the “daghesh” in the Hebrew word. A daghesh is a diacritical mark that looks like a dot placed inside a Hebrew letter. When it’s present, it changes the sound of the letter. Without a daghesh, the Hebrew “k” has a muted sound, like the end of the Scottish word “loch.” With the daghesh, it has a hard sound, like the “k” in “kitten.” (2)
Because of the daghesh principle, the “n” in Hanukkah is sometimes doubled … but by accident. At some point, a writer must have known there was a doubled letter somewhere in the word, but doubled the “n” instead of the “k.” Another person saw that spelling and copied it … and it took off from there. (2)
‘Hanukkah’ is the most popular spelling
Despite all these varieties, there is a standard we can hang on to. A search on Google’s Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequency of words in a huge corpus of English books, from the 1800s through 2000, shows the spelling H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H as the most popular, with C-H-A-N-U-K-A-H in second place.
Also, the three dictionaries, two style guides, one encyclopedia, and one usage guide we checked all show “Hanukkah”—starting with an “h” and with two “k”s in the middle—as the main spelling.** There may be arguments for using the other versions, but you can’t go wrong with that one.
** For those who want to know, we checked the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, the AP Stylebook, the Chicago Style Manual, Garner’s Modern English Usage.
Note: The Hanukkah menorah is sometimes also called a hanukiah.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Hanukkah, menorah (subscription required, accessed November 18, 2019).
- Hoffman, Joel. In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, pp. 115. New York University Press, 2004.
- Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Hanukkah, menorah (subscription required, accessed November 18, 2019).
- Tverberg, Lois. Our Rabbi Jesus website. Why are there so many spellings of Hanukkah, Nov. 30, 2018, accessed November 18, 2019.