A lexical oddity or how a 1970s cop left its mark on the German language

I actually have one more photo post coming up, but for now here’s a short linguistics post inspired by happening upon a rerun on TV.

I supposed you all know those magnetic beacons that can be attached to the roof of a plainclothes police vehicle in times of need. They’re becoming somewhat less common now that more and more plainclothes vehicles are equipped with grille or dashboard flashers. But until approx. 6 years ago, magnetic beacons were very common indeed.

Now I didn’t actually know what those magnetic beacons were called in English – I had to look it up. I didn’t know the official German term for those things either and again I had to look it up. It’s “Rundumkennleuchte mit Magnethalter” by the way. However, nobody in Germany actually calls them “Rundumkennleuchte mit Magnethalter” outside official documents. Because the German slang term for magnetic beacons is “Kojak”, named after the 1970s cop show starring Telly Savalas.

Kojak, the TV show, was hugely popular in Germany in the 1970s. And the title sequence used on German TV (which to my surprise is completely different from the US title sequence) consists of random stock footage images of New York City (obviously dating from different years, too, considering that the stunning Singer Building can still be seen in some of them, though it was demolished in 1968, five years before Kojak first went on air) intercut with a scene of Lieutenant Kojak putting a magnetic beacon on the roof of his car.

Now I don’t know if magnetic beacons were already in use in Germany in 1974, when Kojak first aired on German TV. But most Germans first saw them on TV in the Kojak title sequence. As a result (and because “Rundumkennleuchte mit Magnethalter” is such as monster of a term(, magnetic beacons are commonly referred to as “Kojaks” in Germany. Though Germany isn’t the only country where Kojak has left a linguistic impression. According to Wikipedia, “Kojak” is a slang term for a bald man in Brazilian Portuguese.

As for the show itself, I came upon a rerun on late night TV yesterday (which prompted this post) and was pleasantly surprised. My vague memories of watching Kojak in the late 1970s and early 1980s had it filed away under “boring show with ugly old men”. Okay, so neither Telly Savalas nor anybody else on the show is going to win any beauty awards anytime soon. There’s also a distinct lack of woman – the only recurring female character I could make out was a woman who ran a bar frequented by many of the regulars. However, Kojak does a surprisingly good job of showing New York City as a diverse place that is not just populated by WASPs. The protagonist is Greek American, played by a Greek American actor, other police officers are Italian American, Hispanic or Jewish. There are black characters, though none in the main cast sadly. Still, by 1970s standards this was positively progressive.

The plot of the episode I watched was a mash-up of Taxi Driver and Play Misty for Me (unscrupulous host of a call-in radio show inspires mentally unstable taxi driver to kill the people who offend her), both films which were big successes in the early 1970s. Interestingly, this hearkens back to the practice of having TV episodes borrow the plots of popular films that was common well into the 1980s (Remington Steele even made fun of it by having the protagonist identify which films they had borrowed from this week). American television stopped doing that sometime post 1990 (though there are occasional throwbacks, e.g. Criminal Minds has a few) and switched instead to offering “ripped from the headlines” cases, which are a lot less interesting IMO.

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6 Responses to A lexical oddity or how a 1970s cop left its mark on the German language

  1. sherwood smith says:

    Loved linguistic posts! Thanks.

  2. That’s a fun post. Telly Savalas just happened to star (along with George Lazenby and Diana Rigg) in my favorite Christmas movie as well: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (United Artists, 1969). It wouldn’t be Christmas without a viewing of OHMSS.

    • Cora says:

      Oh, I love On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Definitely one of my favourite Bond films. I don’t normally think of it as a Christmas film, but it absolutely is, considering it’s set around Christmas and New Year. BTW, you forgot the marvelous Ilse Steppat (Blofeld’s creepy henchwoman), a German actress who specialized in playing sinister school mistresses and the like. She played pretty much the same role (creepy headmistress of an exclusive boarding school for young upper class women) in several of the German Edgar Wallace crime thrillers in the early to mid 1960s.

      • Ilse Steppat was excellent in the role of Irma Bunt. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. It was a shame that she passed away so soon after that role, as she surely would have made it big beyond Germany as a result.

        • Cora says:

          I’m pretty sure Ilse Steppat landed the Bond role, because she’d been so great as the creepy headmistress of a girls school in The Sinister Monk a few years earlier and as the evil stepmother of Klaus Kinski (double stepmother, since Kinski played twins) in The Blue Hand. She also was in one of the Jerry Cotton film adaptions in the 1960s.

          Another really great performance by her, which also shows what a versatile actress she was, can be found in the rarely seen German spy melodrama Cavalry Captain Wronski from 1954. Ilse Steppat plays an aristocratic spinster who works as a secretary in the German war ministry in the early 1930s and who becomes a spy on behalf of her lover, a dashing Polish cavalry officer (who has a string of aristocratic ladies and spinsterly secretaries spying for him). Eventually, she’s caught and executed. Based on a real case from 1934.

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