The Jook House
While researchers may not know the exact etymology of the term ‘juke’, it is known that the term ‘jukebox’ comes directly from the early 20th century facilities known as jukehouses or jookhouses. A jukebox was simply a place where people listened to music and drank at night, danced with friends and the term jukebox is in reference to the record player who would have been a staple in these places.
West Africa The theory of the Gullah dialect refers to what is spoken by African Americans and Creoles living in the area from South Carolina, through Georgia, and into North Florida. Gullah The word ‘yuk’ has a number of possible meanings, and derivatives of the word mean everything from disorder to evil and violent. It is clear to see how this term could be applied to jukehouses, as they are not generally considered to be the most reputable of establishments, and wild parties and drinking were common.
The European hypothesis
There are a few possible places the term juke could have originated from Europe. The French term meaning ‘to play’ is erer, and it can easily fit with the jukebox meaning ‘playbox’; However, there are no other iterations of joues that turn into something resembling juke. Scotland has a few possible words. The most notable is the ‘jouk’, which means a place to take shelter. This is also credible in relation to the jukehouses. However, the jukehouses were mainly African American facilities, which makes a Scottish connection seem almost impossible.
Some researchers will also argue for a Caribbean connection, especially to Haiti and Jamaica. Haiti was originally colonized by the French, which shortens the term jouer to the table and describes African-American uses, but the link between jouer and juke is still a loose association. Jamaica also has a term ‘juk’ which means to poke, which can be a reference to the needle of a turntable. While the connotation is meaningful, there is some support for linking the Jamaicans to Gullah Creoles, which probably included the term jukebox.
The scientific consensus
While most of the ideas are still being discussed, Gullah’s origins will appear to be the most widely accepted of the given etymologies for jukeboxes. Many dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, immediately refer to Gullah jukehouses and refer to them as brothels. Probably the term jukebox then has a less tasty origin than the happier thoughts that arise today. Although we probably never know for sure, the West African roots seem to have the most support among researchers and in the evidence. The word ‘jukebox’ appeared in the American lexicon in the late 1930s, and almost every American living person has probably heard at least one song from a jukebox in a dinner or a bar. Despite the popularity of the term, however, there is some debate about where it came from. While most researchers will point to African American facilities called jukehouses as the origin of the term jukebox, the meaning and origin of the term ‘juke’ is up for debate. Possible origins include West Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, but we will probably never know with 100 percent certainty where the term came from.