Happy however–you-spell-it

There's a whole lot for folks to disagree on this time of year, particularly when it comes to which holiday merits celebrating and which merits the nailing of a Santa-suited skeleton to a wooden cross outside a Leesburg, Va., courthouse. (Google it. Worth a read.)

In an ideal world, we'd find a way to honor our own particular traditions while lending equal parts respect and reverence to those whose belief systems don't match ours. We don't live in an ideal world. (Exhibit A: Santa skeleton.)

Words Work is here to help. Although we're far too ignorant in matters of faith (and, frankly, a little too conflict-averse) to attempt a feat as large as worldwide spiritual reconciliation, we can tackle a holiday quandary that falls directly under our purview: How do you spell them?

Let's start with Kwanzaa. Or is it Kwanza? Both are correct, actually. Kwanza is the original spelling of the African harvest festival upon which the American holiday is based. The spelling was changed to Kwanzaa here, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, to add a seventh letter to correspond with the seven traditional African principles (unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith) honored during the holiday.

Hanukkah is a little trickier. One intrepid blogger by the name of Joe Maller ( tracked 16 different spellings of the Jewish holiday and measured the Google hits for each. "Hanukkah" came in first with about 8.4 million hits, followed by "Chanukah" with 3.4 million and "Hanukah" with 862,000 hits. "Hannukah," "Chanuka," "Chanukkah" and "Hanuka" trailed closely behind.

"Chanuqa" received the fewest hits at 25.

"The various English spellings for Hanukkah stem primarily from the difficulties of transliterating and transcribing Hebrew," says Kory Stamper, associate editor for Merriam-Webster. "The modern Hebrew word for this holiday is spelled heth-nun-vav-kaf-he."

(Heth-nun-vav-kaf-he yields about 156,000 hits on Google, for the record.)

"The first letter, heth, uses a sound that we don't typically use in English: the voiceless fricative," explains Stamper. "To some English speakers, the heth sounds like a breathy 'h,' and to some, it sounds like the raspy 'ch' you hear in German words like 'buch' and 'ich.' The pronunciation of the 'kaf' is also not always the same: In classical Hebrew it's a harder 'k' sound, and in modern Hebrew, it's a softer 'k.' And the final 'he' doesn't sound like a separate letter to the English speaker—it might just be a bit of breath at the end of the word."

And if all that wasn't confusing enough…

"Attempts to standardize the transliteration of Hebrew words using the Roman alphabet didn't gain much traction until the mid 20th Century—about 100 years after the first English transcriptions of the word," Stamper says.

Then there's the "Keep Christ in Christmas" ranks, some of whom want to rid the world of the word "Xmas." The "x," however, is a representation of the Greek letter chi, the first letter of Khristos (Christ in Greek), according to our American Heritage friends.

Happy holidays. All of them.

Do you have any other questions about words, and how they work? Talk to Words Work columnist Heidi Stevens at

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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