Christmas English English language Etymology Expression Hanukkah Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Happy Chanucha & Merry Xpes mæsse

Q: Why don’t we spell it “Honica” instead of “Hanukkah”? When a word is adopted into English from a non-Latin language, wouldn’t the change be toward the closest pronunciation? What else would influence the re-spelling?

A: The English name for Hanukkah has been spelled many ways over the years, just as the English name for Christmas has had many spellings.

The Oxford English Dictionary has these spellings for Hanukkah since it first  appeared in English in the 17th century: Chanucha, Chanuchah, Hanuca, Hanucka, Chanuca, Chanucah, Chanucca, Chanuccah, Chanuka, Chanukah, Chanukka, Chanukkah, Hanucah, Hanucca, Hanuccah, Hanucha, Hanuckah, Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanukka, Hanukkah, Khanukah, Khanukka, and Khanukkah.

The OED has even more spellings for Christmas since it showed up in Old English in the 10th century, but here’s a very abbreviated list: Cristesmæsse,  Xpes mæsse, Cristesmas, Crystesmasse, Kyrstemas, Kyrstemasse, Kyrstemaste, Kyrstemes, Cristmas, Crestmas, Crystmasse, Curstmas, Christmasse, Chrystmas, Christmass, and Christmas.

The two most common English spellings now for the Jewish holiday are “Hanukkah” and “Chanukah.” The only English spelling now for the Christian holiday is of course “Christmas,” though the short form “Xmas” is often seen and has been for hundreds of years. We’ll have more on “Christmas” and “Xmas” later in this post.

So why does the name for the Jewish holiday sometimes begin with “h” and sometimes with “ch,” and why does it sometimes have one “k” and sometimes two?

Those variations reflect the difficulty of rendering חנוכה, the Hebrew word for the holiday, in English. The letters ח (chet) and כ (kaf) are the problems, since they represent sounds not found in the English alphabet. (Hebrew is read right to left, so the ח is the first letter of חנוכה.)

In ancient times, the chet was likely pronounced as a throaty “h” (technically, a voiceless pharyngeal fricative), though it’s now usually pronounced like the “ch” in the German Bach, Scottish loch, and English interjection “yech” (a voiceless uvular or velar fricative).

The majority Ashkenazic Jews (those with roots in Eastern and Central Europe) generally use the newer pronunciation in speaking Hebrew. Sephardic Jews (those who  were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century and settled in North Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and elsewhere) tend to use the older pronunciation.

As for the Hebrew letter kaf, it was apparently pronounced in ancient times as a doubled (or geminate) “k,” similar to the sound of the “kk” in the English word “bookkeeping.”

The kaf is usually pronounced now in Hebrew as a simple “k,” though the “kk” spelling in English has survived as a reminder of the word’s history.

Of the two usual English spellings of the holiday, “Hanukkah” is probably closer to the original Hebrew pronunciation while “Chanukah” is more like the modern Hebrew pronunciation.

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult list “Hanukkah” as the usual English spelling of the holiday and “Chanukah” as a common variant. Standard dictionaries indicate how a language is used now. A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer of digitized books confirms that “Hanukkah” is more popular than “Chanukah.”

As for the etymology, the Hebrew word for the holiday, חנוכה, literally means dedication; it’s derived from חנך (hanak), a verb meaning to dedicate. The holiday marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish Maccabees wrested control of it from the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire in the second century BCE.

The OED says the Hebrew term was first recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish teaching believed to date from as early as the third century CE. In Shabbat 21a of the Talmud, rabbis discuss which wicks and oils can be used for Sabbath and Hanukkah lights. Here’s an excerpt; we’ll underline בחנוכה (b’hanukkah, “on Hanukkah”):

אמר רב הונא פתילות ושמנים שאמרו חכמים אין מדליקין בהן בשבת אין מדליקין בהן בחנוכה בין בשבת בין בחול

(“Rav Huna said: Those wicks and oils that the Sages said one may not use to light the lamp on Shabbat, one may not use to light the lamp on Hanukkah either—whether it falls on Shabbat or during the week.”)

The OED says the English term for the holiday is derived from both the Hebrew חנוכה and the Latin word for the holiday, chanuca. The dictionary’s earliest English example is from a translation of an Italian book about Jewish rituals:

“Of the Feast of Lights, called also Chanucha.” From The History of the Rites, Customes, and Manner of Life, of the Present Jews, Throughout the World (1650), Edmund Chilmead’s translation of a work by Leo Modena, a Venetian rabbi.

As for the various spellings of Christmas, the holiday marking the birth of Jesus, the earliest recorded example in the OED appeared in Old English as Cristesmæssan:

“Leohtgescot gelæste man be wite to Cristesmæssan and to candelmæssan and to eastron” (“The light fee should be paid at Christmas and at Candlemas and at Easter”). From Be Cristendome (“About Christianity”), a 10th-century homily by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. The fee was for church candles.

The term is spelled Xpes mæsse (“Christ’s mass”) in the OED’s next example, an Old English entry for the year 1021 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“And se eorl Rodbeard her oð Xpes mæsse forneal mid pam cynge wunode” (“And Earl Robert stayed here [in Westminster] with the king [William II, son of William the Conqueror] almost until Christmas”).

The “Xp” at the beginning of Xpes mæsse comes from the Greek letters Χ (chi) and ρ (rho), the first letters of the word for “Christ” in ancient Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ or χριστoς (christos, anointed one).

Medieval scribes commonly abbreviated  “Christ” as “X” or “Xp” in copying religious manuscripts, a practice that led to the use of “Xmas” as a shortening for “Christmas,” as we wrote in a 2006 post.

Although the Greek χ was rendered as “ch” in classical Latin, the use of the “ch-” digraph in English for “Christ” and its derivatives was an etymological latecomer.

As the OED explains, “The spelling with initial ch- is comparatively infrequent” until the 1500s. The earliest OED example is from a 16th-century description of King Henry II’s celebration of the holiday in 1166. Here’s an expanded version:

“And after his returne he went to Windsore, where he made his abode and kept his Christmas, and the greatest part of all the Nobles of the realme were there with him.” From A Chronicle at Large and Meere History of the Affayres of Englande and Kinges of the Same (1569), by Richard Grafton.

Nevertheless, “X-” spellings continued to be used in English, as in  “X’temmas” (1551), “Xtmasse” (1660), and finally “Xmas.” The OED’s first example for “Xmas,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Oct. 17, 1721, letter from an English landowner to a son away at school:

“I hope you will eat at Xmas some roast beef out of the old kitchen.” From John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect: Letters to His Son 1719-1729, edited by Alan Mackley and published by The Norfolk Record Society in 2005.

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