Editor's note: This story has been updated since its original publishing in 2014.
Imagine writing a birthday card to a friend, and not being sure how to spell the word "birthday." Now imagine that the greeting card companies don't know how to spell it either and, so, you find several different spellings in the card section of the store. Think an e-card will save you? Guess again — same problem there.
Hoping Google will clear the matter up, you type in the spelling you think it might be, and quickly find more than a dozen other variants.
Well, then Happy Ha-Cha-nu-nnu-k-kk-a-ah to you! Even spell check was afraid to flag the preceding all-spellings-in-one word; it just waved it right through.
Basically, there are four main variables in the spelling of the Jewish holiday, which this year began Sunday and runs through Monday, Dec. 6: "H" or "Ch" at the beginning; "n" or double "n" after the first "a"; "k" or double "k" after the "u"; then "a" or "ah" at the end. Those elements, however, can be mixed and matched in a vertiginous number of possible combinations, which will probably make you want to end the word with a hair-tearing "aaaah!"
According to the Associated Press Stylebook, the journalist's bible, the holiday should be spelled Hanukkah, but the actual Bible — at least, the Jewish one — doesn't mention the word at all. The Hebrew word, from which the holiday takes its name, appears in the Book of Maccabees, part of the post-Biblical writings known as The Apocrypha. The holiday's undisputed Hebrew spelling is "chet, nun, kaf, hey," which means "dedication" in reference to the rededication of the Temple in the Second Century B.C.E. after the Jews, led by the Maccabee brothers, defeated the Seleucidian (Syrian) Greeks, who had defiled it. The holy oil the victors found there was only sufficient to light the Temple's seven branched candelabrum, known as a menorah, for one day and, yet, it burned for eight; hence the eight candles Jews light — one for each night of the holiday. And it is the Hebrew origin of the holiday's name that sheds further light on its many English spellings.
"The challenge is one of transliteration," said Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Williamstown, who is also a poet, writer and editor, whose blog, The Velveteen Rabbi, was named one of the top 25 sites on the Internet in 2008.
"The proper spelling is easy — in Hebrew," Barenblat quipped. When it comes to the English one, she favors Chanukah because "the 'ch,' to me, is the best way to mimic the Hebrew letter chet. I suspect the Hanukkah spelling came into vogue because English speakers were mispronouncing the 'ch' [since] English doesn't have the back-of-the-throat sound that Hebrew does."
Imagine a person trying to dislodge phlegm from his or her throat, and you'll have an idea of what it should sound like. A good rule of thumb when it comes to the proper pronunciation of this particular Hebrew consonant is, if you can't see the spit, you aren't sayin' it! Spelling it in English, however, is perhaps even more problematic.
"The problem with spelling Chanukah, or any Hebrew word, in English is that the Hebrew and English languages do not have the same inventory of sounds," said Edan Dekel, chair of the Jewish Studies Program, and chair and associate professor of Classics at Williams College.
Dekel likens the chet sound to the "ch" in the Scottish word "loch," but said that spelling a Hebrew word, like Chanukah, that way in English can lead to confusion since a "ch" at the beginning of an English word is usually pronounced as either "tsh" like in "cheese" or "sh" as in "chartreuse." On the other end of the spectrum, going for the nearest English sound, "h," creates another problem.
"Since Hebrew also has a regular 'h' sound," Dekel said "spelling [it as Hanukkah] further confuses the situation by guaranteeing a mispronunciation, and suggesting that an entirely different Hebrew letter stands at the beginning of the word."
Weighing in on the single or double "k" conundrum in the middle of the holiday's name, Dekel said that this reflects differences between ancient and modern Hebrew pronunciation. The ancient pronunciation lends itself to the double "k"; the modern, to the single one.
Finally, when it comes to the end of the holiday getting an "a" or an "ah," Dekel who, like Barenblat, favors the Chanukah spelling, said that "since the Hebrew spelling itself marks the length of that final vowel by using a silent 'h' sound [the hey], it makes perfect sense to carry that practice over into English."
"In short," Dekel summarizes, "since no spelling system that relies only on the English alphabet can represent Hebrew perfectly, there is no 'correct' spelling of the name."
He adds that "as someone who has his own name mispronounced multiple times a day in nearly every setting, I've learned to ignore the mangling of Hebrew words, so I'll read or hear a Happy Hanukkah greeting with just as much affection and good will as any other pronunciation."
And this is probably the best advice of all as you select and write your holiday cards for your Jewish family, colleagues and friends. After all, it's the holiday wishes that count — not the holiday's spelling. So Happy Whateverkah!