The word "jukebox" found its way into the American lexicon in the late 1930s, and nearly every American alive has likely heard at least one song from a jukebox in a diner or a bar. Despite the popularity of the term, however, there is some debate as to where it came from. While most scholars will point to African American establishments known as jukehouses as the origin of the term jukebox, the meaning and origin of the term "juke" are up for debate. Possible origins include West Africa, Europe and the Caribbean Isles, but we will likely never know with 100 percent certainty where the term came from.
The Jook House
While scholars may not know the exact etymology of the term "juke," what is known is that the term "jukebox" comes directly from the early 1900s establishments known as jukehouses or jookhouses. A jukehouse was simply a place where people listened to music and drank the night away, dancing with friends, and the term jukebox is in reference to the record player that would have been a staple in these places.
The West Africa Theory
The Gullah dialect refers to that spoken by African Americans and Creoles that inhabit the area from South Carolina, through Georgia, and into the northern areas of Florida. The Gullah word "juk" has a number of possible meanings, and derivatives of the word mean everything from disorderly to wicked and violent. It is clear to see how this term could be applied to jukehouses, as they were usually not 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 within Europe. The French term meaning "to play" is jouer, and that could easily fit with jukebox meaning "play box"; however, there are no other iterations of jouer being turned into something similar to juke. Scotland has a few possible words. The most notable is "jouk," which means a place to take shelter. This also is plausible in reference to the jukehouses. However, the jukehouses were primarily African American establishments, which makes a Scottish connection seem almost impossible.
Some scholars will also argue for a Caribbean connection, especially to Haiti and Jamaica. Haiti was initially colonized by the French, which brings the term jouer back to the table and accounts for the African American uses, but the link between jouer and juke is still a loose association. Jamaica also has a term "juk" that means to poke, which could be a reference to the needle on a record player. While the connotation makes sense, there is little supporting evidence to link the Jamaicans to the Gullah Creoles, who likely coined the term jukebox.
The Scholarly Consensus
While most of the ideas are still being debated, the Gullah origins seem to be the most commonly accepted of the given etymologies for jukebox. Many dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, immediately reference the Gullah jukehouses and refer to them as brothels. Likely the term jukebox then has a less savory origin than the happier thoughts it brings up today. Though we will likely never know with certainty, the Western African roots seem to have the most support amongst scholars and in the evidence.