How do you spell Hanukkah?
Hanukkah vs. Chanukah: Each winter, as the Jewish festival of lights approaches, English speakers grapple with the question of how to spell its name. The Oxford English Corpus records at least 13 different contemporary spellings, and there are even more in the historical evidence. While the vowels of the word (-a-u-a-) remain constant, there is wide variation in the choice and reduplication (or not) of the various consonants. However, as the chart below shows, two spellings clearly predominate: Hanukkah and Chanukah. How should you choose between them? Either one is acceptable in most contexts, but individual publications may have their own preference. Hanukkah is more common overall, and is the dominant form in general use, but Chanukah appears to be slightly more common in publications aimed at a Jewish audience in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
The distinction between H- and Ch- came about because of different approaches to representing words from Hebrew, which has its own alphabet, in English. In Hebrew, Hanukkah begins with the consonant ḥet or chet (ח), which is pronounced /x/ (like -ch in the Scottish pronunciation of loch). The Hebrew letter is now most often transcribed in the Roman alphabet using the symbol ḥ (an h with a dot below), but the digraph ch is also used. Historical evidence suggests that the name of the festival first appeared in English in the 17th century with an initial Ch-, but spellings beginning with H- had arrived by the early 18th century. By the late 19th century, the word was appearing regularly in English, primarily in Jewish publications, and both the Hanukkah and Chanukah spellings were in evidence.
There is some disparity in how words beginning with ḥet have are spelled in English, but the most common such borrowings tend to be spelled with an initial ch- (for instance, challah, chutzpah, chuppah), making the relative prominence of Hanukkah something of an aberration. The /x/ sound of ḥet is unfamiliar to many English speakers, and difficult for them to pronounce, so as words beginning with the sound become more naturalized, and are used by people unfamiliar with the conventions of the Hebrew language, they are more likely to be pronounced as /h/ irrespective of spelling. Nonetheless, since H- more closely represents the naturalized English pronunciation of the word, it probably reinforces it—and vice versa.
Variation in the number of ks in Hanukkah is due to a convention of transcribing consonants written in Hebrew with a dot (or daghesh), which in ancient Hebrew indicated a long consonant, with a doubled Roman letter. Many other Hebrew loanwords, such as Haggadah (sometimes spelled Hagadah) show the same type of variation in English. In contrast, the variant forms of Hanukkah which show a double n in English have no basis in Hebrew transcription; they are just good old-fashioned misspellings.