Step one, think carefully about the sound of the holiday's name as you say it, for me that's “HAH”, “NOO”, “KAH”. Step two, grab a large club and whack yourself in the head eight times. Step three, attempt to write the word. You probably got it right. Okay just kidding, but it wouldn't at all be an understatement to say that there are literally dozens of “correct” ways to spell “Hanukkah“…
One of my favorite bits was this:
4. There is only one way to spell Christmas.
No one can decide how to spell Chanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukka, Channukah, Hanukah, Hannukah, etc.
I've long wondered about the spelling of Hanukkah myself. I figure that somewhere in the world, some folks must pronounce it with a glottal “ch” sound at the beginning, which is where the “C” comes from. I also have to believe that in the Hebrew alphabet, there are fewer spellings (hopefully one, although I think I read somewhere that there are at least two) When words are adopted into English from languages with different alphabets, there are often different folks who think they should be spelled in different ways.
When I wonder about words that have multiple spellings I usually try to identify the major variants, and then do a little Internet research.
Variations on the Word
The core word “hanuka” has 4 basic variants: (1) one N, one K, (2) one N, two K's, (3) two N's, one K, (4) two N's, two K's. Let's name these NK, NKK, NNK, NNKK accordingly.
Secondly, there are 4 variations in the letters that appear around the core word: (1) C before, H after, (2) C before, nothing after, (3) nothing before, H after, or (4) nothing before or after. Let's name these “outer” variants CH, C-, -H, and — accordingly.
Taken together these give 16 variations on the word Hanukkah. The variant I've always preferred is NKK-H.
A good place to start is with dictionaries, and the best IMHO on-line dictionary resource is the OneLook Dictionary Search page. This page will search for your favorite word in 900 on-line dictionaries. Further it also does reverse searches, it will search definitions for your search phrases and help you find words for them. What happens when I look up each of the 16 variants of Hanukkah on OneLook?
It turns out that according to the dictionaries searched, that only about half of the variants are included. Furthermore there are two definite front-runners. Hanukkah (NKK-H) appears in 21 dictionaries, and Chanukah (NKCH) appears in 17 dictionaries. The third place contender Hanukah (NK-H) appears in only 4 dictionaries.
Considering the top three, the first and second account for 90% of the hits, with the third only accounting for 10%. The first two are fairly close in terms of appearances, with the second place Chanukah being about 80% as “popular” as the first place Hanukkah.
There is a three-way tie for fourth place between Hannukah (NNK-H), Chanukkah (NKKCH), and Channukah (NNKCH) at 3 dictionaries. Tying for fifth place are Hanukka (NKK–) and Channukkah (NNKKCH) at 2 dictionaries.
So based on the dictionary searching, it's Hanukkah (NKK-H) or Chanukah (NKCH), with a preference for the former. Strictly in terms of legality, there are 7 legal spellings. Here they are in alphabetical order: channukah, channukkah, chanukah, chanukkah, hannukah, hanukah, hanukka, and hanukkah.
When it comes to word spellings, there's the dictionary, and then there is popular usage. A great place to look into popular usage is Google.
In addition to returning pages and pages of search results, Google will also give you the approximate number of “hits” your search terms generated. If you search Google for “XYZZY” for example, you'll find that there are about 648,000 “hits” (hit = a page containing the search terms).
Not surprisingly, all 16 variants have hits on Google, because people are generally less rigorous than dictionaries. But again there are front-runners.
Coming in at first place with 7,300,000 hits is Hanukkah (NKK-H). In second with 3,170,000 hits is Chanukah (NKCH). Note that the second place spelling is about half as popular as the first place spelling. In third place is Hanukah (NK-H) with 837,000 hits. This variant is about 25% as popular as the second place spelling, and about 10% as popular as the first place spelling.
It is interesting to note is that the top-three for popularity match the top-three in the dictionary search. But based on popular usage the preference between the top two is markedly different. For dictionaries Chanukah is 80% as applicable as Hanukkah. According to the public Chanukah is only 43% as applicable.
Two of the fourth place dictionary winners Hannukah (NNK-H) and Chanukkah (NKKCH) take fourth and fifth place on the popularity scale with 718,000 and 368,000 hits respectively.
After that, the correlation between popular usage and the dictionary breaks down, you begin to find spellings which came in at zero on the dictionary search showing up on the popular usage search, and one of the “acceptable dictionary spellings” comes in at second to last. The public really, REALLY, doesn't like to spell it Channukkah (NNKKCH)… this had only 553 hits, as compared to the seven million plus for Hanukkah.
The least popular of the 16 variants is Channukka at a measly 485 hits.
The most popular misspelling (that does not appear in any OneLook dictionary) is Chanuka (NKC-). This spelling took sixth on the popularity scale at 314,000 hits. But fear not, all of the “nonlegal variants” accounted for only 5% of the hits. So at a rudimentary level there's a decent correlation between the dictionaries and the public.
Letter Patterns and Spelling Guessers
The most popular core word is NKK (hanukka). Interestingly if you remove the 2 front-runners, then the simplest core word NK (hanuka) takes first place. I guess that makes sense, people trying to guess the spelling probably prefer to go as simple as possible. Minus the two front-runners, core words go in popularity as follows (NK at 47%, NNK at 32%, NKK at 20%, NNKK at 1%). Clearly, people prefer not to double up letters, and if they are going to double them up, then they prefer the fluid-consonant N to the hard-consonant K. In the dictionary search the popularity of core words is about the same.
People think Hanukkah should end in H by a whopping 16 to 1 margin. Even if you remove the two front-runners, the H ending is preferred almost 3 to 1. This is not surprising since all of the variants of Hanukkah that ended in H were legal in at least two dictionaries except for Hannukkah (NNKK-H).
With or without the front-runners, people prefer that Hanukkah begins with an H by a 2 to 1 margin. People guessing the spelling are twice as likely to leave the C out of it. In the dictionary search, all of the CH spellings were considered legal, while all of the C- spellings were not.
Without the front-runners, people prefer the -H (no C, ends in H) outer variation 56% of the time. All the other outer variants are pretty much equally likely, with — (no C, no H) being the least likely. This is amusing to me, as it suggests folks who can't remember which letters to double up and choose NK, still seem to think something needs to go at the front or the back. In my mind I imagine disembodied voices saying things like “I can't remember if there are 2 N's or 2 K's, but I think it ends with H.” and “Damn I need to spell Hanukkah… where's my club?”
Here are “the numbers”. These variants are shown in order of popularity (GOOGLE), the ONELOOK column shows the number of dictionary hits over at OneLook. The C,N,K,H columns show letter counts of the letters that vary from spelling to spelling.
Like it or not, there will always be variants on this word. Heck, it's common among French speakers to replace the “u” with “ou”… the most popular variant of that type being Hanouka (27,500 hits). Hanucha returns 1,170 hits. Heck some people even spell it Hanuqa or Hanuqah.
TableAndHome.com has a variety of Hanukkah celebratory merchandise for sale. On their page they offer the following additional spellings: Chanuko, Kanukkah, Khannuka, Khanuka, Khanukah, Khanukkah, Khannukah, and Xanuka.
…I was watching a spelling bee
And these kids were spelling words
That don't come naturally to me or you
Like oligarchy, solipsism, bouillabaisse, epistemology, insouciant
Onomatopoeia, syllogism, perspicacious, hypothalamus
Well, I bet they would get stumped
If they had to spell Channukkahh
Note that their spelling in the title ends in two H's. This spelling only churns up 113 hits on Google, and they are all in reference to the Leevees song. So I guess we can thank them for making the situation they are bummed about worse.
You want to know how to spell it? Spell it Hanukkah. It's the closest to right by both measures. Hebrew Union College agrees. If you prefer the “c” on the front, then spell it Chanukah. All other spellings are suspect, though there are at least five others recognized in certain dictionaries.
The beauty of it is, whatever spelling you choose? You're probably right somewhere. So bearing that in mind, Happy Khanooka everyone!
Interesting to note, at the conclusion of my research I found another blogger who did something very similar last year. So I can hardly lay claim as the “inventor” of the idea of using Google to zero in on correct spelling, although I used the same technique several years back to settle an argument about how to spell “patooties” (as in “tough patooties”.) In January of 2005, the Economist ran an article about linguists using the web and Google to study language usage.