Big data says it’s “Hanukkah” not “Chanukah”

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Tomorrow evening the start of Hanukkah. Or is it Chanukah?

As a transliteration of the Hebrew חנוכה, there is no one right way to spell the holiday. Orthographically, you can start with an H or a Ch, add or take away an n or k in the middle, and end with an a or an ah.

Most style books say Hanukkah. The U.S. Supreme Court chose Chanukah in County of Allegheny v. the American Civil Liberties Union, the Court’s first case mentioning the holiday. William Safire preferred Hannuka (two n’s to avoid an “oo” in the middle and no “h” to have it end in an “uh” sound).

The most common versions are Hanukkah and Chanukah. The choice of how to start the word differs because חנוכה begins with the letter het (or chet). This is a letter indicates a sound similar to the Greek chi, and does not have an equivalent in English. Moreover, the pronunciation varies depending on whether it is pronounced using classical Hebrew (more of an “h” sound) or modern Hebrew (more of a “ch” sound).

With multiple spellings to choose from, which one is best? If you want to use the word most often used, then Hanukkah is the preferred spelling. Here’s three snapshots of how writers and internet users pick their spellings.

Google’s ngrams searches through books and other manuscripts, instantly calculating the use of words in our printed language. Up until the 1940s, the festival did not appear much in English, but when it did, both spellings were often used. As the holiday took off in post-war America, Hanukkah became the more common spelling chosen, used about twice as often as Chanukah.

We see a larger difference in Google searches. When people are searching for information related to the holiday, Hanukkah is used three to four times as often as Chanukah.

Topsy Hanukkah
Twitter provides another look at this question. Over the past thirty days, there have been a few days when Chanukah has been mentioned more than Hanukkah. In the tweets mentioning the holiday, the h-version has been used nearly twice as much as the ch-version.

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