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 chakalakatzafiror (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!)


  1. Nitpicks:

    Using “the Aztecs had a verb” to describe Nahuatl is misleading for two reasons. Firstly, Nahuatl was not just spoken by the Aztecs. It was spoken by their allies, their tributaries, enemies that they never subjugated, and people as far south as Nicaragua that the Aztecs had never even heard of. Nahuatl is not like Latin, which was spread by the Romans; it was already widespread before the Aztecs came along.

    Secondly, it’s misleading to speak of it in the past tense, as though it doesn’t exist anymore. Nahuatl is still spoken and these words are still in use. In fact, the precise form ‘chachalani’ is only attested in modern sources, AFAIK, though related words are found in the 16th century. Speaking of related words, chachalacani is not actually directly derived from chachalani, though both are ultimately from chalani.

    The article claims that the shift to the name of a bird happened in Spanish, but actually chachalaca already meant ‘for birds to warble/twitter’ in Nahuatl, and Nahuatl also had chachalatli and chachalacametl as names of birds.

    “The Spanish adopted this word even as they decimated Aztec civilization during the 16th century.” makes it sound like it’s unexpected for the Spanish to adopt Nahuatl words. But they adopted hundreds of them! And Nahuatl words continued to be adopted into Spanish over the following centuries.

    I’m not even going to get into the claim that Aztec civilization was “decimated” during the 16th century.

  2. There is an Indian TV series for children, Shaka Laka Boom Boom, which dates to around 2000, although getting from that to the Hebrew word and meaning seems like as much of a stretch as the Aztec-Spanish connection, if not more. Unless the TV series was popular in Israel, which doesn’t seem likely. And anyway, it doesn’t seem to have any connection to sirens or flashing lights.

    I should explain that this isn’t a piece of knowledge that happened to be floating in my head. The phrase ‘Shaka Laka’ sounded strangely familiar, and googling led to a rap song, then a 2007 Bollywood movie, then to this earlier TV series.

  3. It would be too much to ask for, I guess, that the South African relish chakalaka was also derived from the Nahuatl? Still, as Gilad says, what a fun thing to say, and even more fun if you have a South African friend who will bring chakalaka to your barbecue. She still won’t give me her recipe, mind.

  4. “Boom-shaka-laka” does exist as a sort of a set phrase in the American consciousness, although I don’t know how it came to be. The 1969 song “I Want to Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone features a chorus of “boom-laka-laka-laka”.

  5. Israeli slang researcher Ruvik Rosenthal says (in Hebrew): “Chakalaka is a South African spicy vegetable relish, and purely coincidentally, a Brazilian dance. Fuji Shakalaka is a bicycle model, Shakalaka Baby is a Tamil dance hit, and there is also boom shakalaka, and on and on. It seems that this expression with the specific Israeli meaning is a local development, perhaps because the rotating light suggests dancing.”

    I’ll add that /ʃ/ in borrowed words often alternates with /tʃ/ in vernacular Hebrew.

    (Aside, in the same Q&A column, Rosenthal says the etymology of parve פארעווע ‘kosher with either meat or dairy’ is unknown, despite many unconvincing proposals. I didn’t know that.)

  6. Herschel Schwartz says

    @Y, do you have any materials that discuss this, about /S/ and /tS/ in borrowings in Israeli? I would think that this would work in a particular direction, and would not apply to this case, namely that Israeli would tend against /tS/ as it’s a relatively uncommon phoneme. Not that it matters for the point about this etymology in particular, if he claims it’s not related to anything.

  7. Herschel, I haven’t thought about it much until now. It’s from my own impressions, and I don’t know of any published work about it. My guess is that it’s hypercorrection rooted in such pairs as /šimpanza/ ~ /čimpanza/ ‘chimpanzee’, where the š form either came through German, or was formulated by the Academy to avoid a foreign č. I’ll try to think of more examples unless someone else does it first (or tells me that I’m imagining things).

  8. Ilya Tsindlekht says

    Doesn’t Swedish word for cockroach sound something like kakelake? I heard it in Andrey Tarkovski’s “Sacrifice”

  9. Raj Kumar Jha says

    Find out if it has any connection with #Maithili word ‘ Chakamaka’, dazzling, bright. 🙂

  10. I first heard “Boom shakalaka” in 1993.

  11. 1993 “Boom shakalaka” by Apache Indian was international hit and definitely was known in Israel, especially to the youth.

    So that would be the best route to make it into Hebrew slang.

  12. Wikipedia suggests that “boom shakalakalaka” goes back at least to Sly and the Family Stone in 1969, though I’m not sure I hear a /ʃ/ in the song (seems more like /l/, but I’m not using headphones).

  13. The Aztecs had a verb …

    It is most unlikely that a word used in contemporary Hebrew is related to an “Aztec” verb, but the reference to such a word is not totally far-fetched. Nahuatl is a member of the Uto-Aztecan family, and in some languages of this family (at least in the “Takic” group of California) the template C1VC2VLVC2V is attested in a number of plural verb stems corresponding to C1VC2V singular stems (as in potential chakalaka and chaka).

  14. I should have known that putting two links into a comment would send it into moderation.

  15. Doesn’t Swedish word for cockroach sound something like kakelake?


  16. German Kakerlak(e).

  17. There are also North and South Cackalacky as nicknames for the Carolinas.

  18. “Boom-shaka-laka” does exist as a sort of a set phrase in the American consciousness,

    Courtesy the Lords of the Underground, “Chief Rocka“: “boom shaka laka, here comes the chief rocka.”

    Admittedly, the LOTUG song and Apache Indian’s release both are in 1993, but in American consciousness, surely the former is a bigger presence than the latter.

  19. I have a comment in moderation with links, but Wikipedia suggests that “boom shakalakalaka” goes back at least to Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” in 1969, though I’m not sure I hear a /ʃ/ in the song (seems more like /l/, but I’m not using headphones).

  20. “Courtesy the Lords of the Underground, “Chief Rocka“: “boom shaka laka, here comes the chief rocka.” ”

    That looks like hip hop. Sly and the Family Stone used it decades before that and I remember it as being a pretty standard expression back then.

  21. I’ve heard Balkan dance music that uses the phrase “bum chakaraka”; someone knowledgeable told me it’s a kind of Turkish dance syllables, but when I tried to chase that down it went nowhere.

  22. Here’s a Bulgarian example.

  23. Oʻzbekcha


    густые заросли кустарника; густой лес, чаща, чащоба


    новорождённый, грудной ребёнок

  24. The phrase “boom shakalaka” came to my mind as I was doing a word study. It caught my attention because words in my study sounded like it. I’m not sure how the phrase exists in my mind or where I learned it. Maybe it stuck after hearing it at some point in my life or is in our human consciousness as another person commented.
    Anyway, I was doing Hebrew word studies in the concordance for something completely different, then came across the Hebrew words/phrases that sound like the phrase “boom shahkalaka” and relates with the meaning of the word boom.
    Boom in English means: a bang, a loud sound, or an explosion.
    In Hebrew, the word “selah”, pronounced sheh-lakh, means a weapon or missile, or shoot forth in some contexts.
    Then, the Hebrew word “kalah”, pronounced kaw-law’, means complete destruction, consumption, or annihilation.
    Lastly, the Hebrew word “laqach”, pronounced “law-kakh”, means to be taken away, take possession of, to win.
    The association I notice has mainly to do with the first word of the phrase, boom. We know what boom means, therefore, see the association of boom, sending forth a missile, which causes destruction, and can be for the purpose of taking away land or winning a sort of battle. Hence the term, “BOOM-shahkahlakah”.

  25. John Cowan says

    See chakalaka, a spicy Portuguese-derived South African relish usually containing stewed tomatoes and baked beans and eaten with bread or maize porridge.

  26. As mentioned in Nikki’s December 30, 2015 comment. But yours has a working link.

  27. From my understanding of languages, they all have a Hebrew origin. As for shakalaka, the preceding word, boom, is interesting and I would like to find out when this phrase was introduced into the English language. Mainly because I want to learn the context of the word boom as it is used preceding shakalaka.

  28. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Now, since Danish basically isn’t there any more, from that and the existence of black swans you can easily prove that at some point in the past it had the properties necessary to be the ancestor of anything: KIKONGO, Welsh, PIE, Sophia Loren. Even Kusaal.

    Prove me wrong!

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Welsh is of course also the ancestor of Danish. It is the Worm Ouroboros. It was failure to take this into account that was Merritt Ruhlen’s undoing. Now he is doomed to repeat the error forever.

    On a more technical note:

    KIKONGO is only the origin of Swedish and Finnish among the Scandinavian languages. All the other branches of Scandi-Congo are descended from proto-Kusaal via the Dravidian branch.

    But you knew that.

  30. January First-of-May says

    Perhaps Goropius Becanus was almost correct all along – he just misunderstood датчане as Dutch.

  31. Trond Engen says

    A bona fide example of time travel turns up right in front of you, and all you can do is make jokes?

  32. David Marjanović says

    From my understanding of languages, they all have a Hebrew origin.

    …oh, you were serious.

    No. Hebrew is just another language that has its own (fascinating) history and pedigree behind it, including common ancestors with lots of other languages.

    Mainly because I want to learn the context of the word boom as it is used preceding shakalaka.

    It’s a sound effect. It’s not supposed to mean anything, and never was.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    “Boom-shaka-laka-laka” figures in the 1981 military comedy _Stripes_,* which may have introduced it to a new generation not entirely familiar with Sly and the Family Stone, but I tend to assume Sly was the scriptwriters’ source (or Bill Murray’s source, if he improvised the bit). I think I probably became familiar with the Sly usage** about a year before Stripes came out, having acquired a copy of the Woodstock movie’s soundtrack album, as many of us teenagers growing up in the cultural shadow of the goddam hippies and Boomers did circa 1980.

    If there’s a documented pre-Sly usage, I’d be interested in learning about it.

    *In the “graduating from basic training” scene.

    **Online transcriptions of the lyrics seem to vary, after the “boom,” between “shaka-laka-laka” (or “shacka-laka-laka”) and “laka-laka-laka.” I hear it in my head with the /ʃ/ but haven’t gone back to listen carefully.

  34. David,

    Oh, you were serious about Hebrew being fascinating? Of course it is! Also, I wasn’t saying that boom and shakalaka were used originally together with that meaning, I had simply stated how fascinating it is that there are similarities between the English word boom and those Hebrew word and that I was curious about the context. Thanks for your input.

  35. J.W. Brewer,

    Thanks for the input! I love Bill Murray. I will have to check this out.
    It’s just neat how the Hebrew words sounding like shakalakalaka have meanings that correlate with the Engilish meaning of the word boom, especially if David is right that the phrase was created without that intention, but merely as a sound effect. Still cool!

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