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Q From Sue Katz: I’ve always been a word junkie and love finding sites like yours. I’ve been looking for the origin of the word jukebox for some time. Do you have an answer?

A Yes, but it requires some delving into creoles, West African languages, and a bit of low-life.

Creoles are languages that arise spontaneously when people without a tongue in common live and work together. The first stage is a pidgin, a simplified amalgam of elements from the colliding languages; a creole is a pidgin that has gone up in the world and become a mother tongue. There are many examples in and around the Americas, including several in the Caribbean, and (most relevantly for your question) in the Sea Islands off the Carolinas, where Gullah is spoken. This is a creole of English and several West African languages that were brought in by slaves in the eighteenth century.

In Gullah, there is a word jook or joog, which means disorderly or wicked. This comes from one of these West African languages, either from Bambara dzugu, meaning wicked, or from Wolof dzug, to live wickedly. (As you may guess, these languages are related. Both are members of the Niger-Congo group; Wolof is in effect the national language of Senegal, and is also spoken in Gambia; Bambara is a dialect of Mandekan, the administrative language of the old empire of Mali, now an official language of Mali and an important trade language in the area.)

The Gullah word appeared in the Black English jook house for a disorderly house, often a combination of brothel, gaming parlour and dance hall, perhaps just a shack off the road where you could get a drink of moonshine, sometimes a tavern or roadhouse providing music and the like. This was shortened back to jook and is recorded in this form from the 1930s, though — in the way of such matters — it is almost certainly much older.

The device now called a jukebox wasn't by any means new at the time — its precursors date back to the early 1890s under such names as nickel-in-the-slot phonograph, providing music from Edison wax cylinders to four patrons at a time through stethoscope-like tubes. More sophisticated versions provided music in those jooks that didn’t have their own bands. The first appearance of the term jukebox for them was in — of all places — Time magazine, in 1939: “Glenn Miller attributes his crescendo to the ‘juke-box’, which retails recorded music at 5c a shot in bars, restaurants and small roadside dance joints”. It’s gone up in price a bit since, but next time you see one, think of the long linguistic journey implied by its name.

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Page created 22 Jul 2000; Last updated 01 Dec 2007