I had originally considered including today’s blog post as part of the Grammar 101 series, but the correct way to spell the Jewish holiday that started last night and runs until December 14 isn’t really an issue of grammar. Instead, deciding how to spell Hanukkah takes several other factors into account and which one you end up using is ultimately up to you.
In the case of Hanukkah, the original term comes from Hebrew, which has an alphabet completely different from that of English. It includes sounds that don’t really exist in English (and vice versa), as is the case with so many other languages–both ancient and current–around the world. Up until only a few years ago, it seemed more common to find people spell the holiday as Chanukah. That’s with a “ch” in the beginning, one N and one K. Why?
The initial sound in Chanukah is similar to the “ch” sound we find in a word like loch, as in Loch Ness. It’s more guttural. That’s not pronounced like a regular “K” sound in English. It’s not “lock.” Similarly, the initial sound in Chanukah is technically not a regular “H” sound like in the English words hotel, home, or handy. For both native and new English speakers, reproducing this different “ch” sound (which is really more like “kh” if you ask me) can be a struggle.
And so, in more recent years, Hanukkah (with an “H” in the beginning, one N and two Ks) has become more mainstream and common. Non-Hebrew speakers will likely pronounce the initial sound in Hanukkah like a regular “H” rather than like the “ch” sound described above. As for the rationale behind the number of Ns and Ks, it becomes largely a matter of personal preference and common practice. There’s no real rhyme or reason why some people choose one or two Ns and Ks.
As a result, most of us just use what everyone else is using. At present, Hanukkah is preferred, with Chanukah coming as the second most common spelling. To complicate matters even further, though, there are as many as sixteen different spellings that are still technically “correct.” These include Hanukah, Chanuka, and Hanuka, as well as the far less common Xanuka and Chanuqa.
You may also find some additional regional variation in terms of preference. Taken as a whole, your best bet is to stick with Hanukkah for the time being, but people shouldn’t fault you for writing it as Chanukah either.