Elon Gilad at Haaretz discusses a surprising Hebrew etymology, that of the word chakalaka “(cha-ka-LA-ka) – the Hebrew word for emergency vehicle lighting, those rotating lights atop police cars and ambulances”:
The Aztecs had a verb, chachalani, which meant to raise an uproar, and a noun, chachalacani, which meant gossiper, was derived from that. The Spanish adopted this word even as they decimated Aztec civilization during the 16th century.
In Spanish the word came to mean “babbler,” and became the name of a particularly loud bird, the Chachalaca, an American bird from the genus Ortalis.
At this point in the story, the etymology of the word becomes somewhat fuzzy; it is not at all clear how a Spanish word for “babbler” made its way into Hebrew, especially since the word entered Spanish after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492. In other words, it wouldn’t have made it into Ladino, a Jewish Spanish dialect that has (barely) survived to this day, but has contributed some words to Hebrew.
At any rate, written evidence of the use of the word chakalaka can be found in novels only after the year 2,000, but the word was in use earlier. For example, in Israeli author Dudu Busi’s Perre Atzil (“Noble Savage”), from 2003, he writes, “The blue chakalaka light entered through the shutters.”
Whenever the word did enter Hebrew, it pushed out the popular term for rotating lights that preceded it — kojak — which had been in use since the 1970s, influenced by the popular American television series “Kojak,” starring Telly Savalas. This word was in use at least until 1985.
In 2012, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, in conjunction with the Transportation Ministry, put out a dictionary of transportation terms that included a Hebrew replacement for the word chakalaka – tzafiror (tza-fi-ROR), a portmanteau of the words tzofar (tzo-FAR), meaning “siren” and or, meaning “light.” But that word doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like chakalaka, which is way more fun to say and appears to be here to stay.
A word must have great power to dislodge Kojak. (Thanks, Kobi!)