Why Do We Call Coffee a Cup of Joe?

Why Do We Call Coffee a Cup of Joe?

Jake Bonneman Jake Bonneman
5 minutes of coffee drinking

It's said that the story of how coffee got nicknamed “Joe” is one of the most interesting stories in all of history. And who am I to disagree? After all, I'm the one who's going to tell you that story.

So, it all started with a man named Joe. Joe was a regular guy—he loved spending time with his family, playing Jai-Alai, and working on his car—a 1974 Shelby Charger AMG One (Eddie Bauer Edition).

But what Joe loved most of all was coffee. Coffee, coffee, and more coffee. He drank cup after cup every day, and he just couldn't get enough of it.

One day, Joe went to work at the solenoid plant as usual, but had a bit of a mishap. He spilled coffee all over his mauve sleeveless work shirt! Naturally—and much to Joe's chagrin—his co-workers started calling the coffee in the break room "Joe." The name stuck, and to this day, we still call coffee a "cup of Joe."

Thanks for the caffeine boost, Joe!

Alright, maybe some of that wasn't true.

Maybe none of it was.

But hey, it's as legit as the most well-known origin story we have.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at that story, see why it’s made up, and move on to some more likely explanations.

Say it Ain’t So, Joe!

The most widely accepted wrong story we have to explain the origin of calling coffee "Joe" is this one. If it were true, this is how I would tell the story.

Keep in mind, though—this is all made up:

The use of joe as slang for coffee is a very interesting story, which goes all the way back to the dark days of World War I. A man named Josephus Daniels was Secretary of the Navy under then-president Woodrow Wilson. Daniels was known for his sweeping changes throughout the navy all centered around "morals."

He discouraged prostitution at naval bases—and more controversially, prohibited alcohol consumption with his infamous "Order 99" on June 1, 1914. Secretary Daniels donned his trademark waffle-knit Sith robes and said "Execute Order 99," and the sailors were dry.

Coffee ended up filling the void that the ban on alcohol left and blah blah blah Daniels’s name became disparagingly linked to the daily drink of millions around the world blah blah blah! And that's why we call coffee a "cup of Joe" today!"

Cool story (I guess).

Crazy thing is... it's not true.

The Navy, the snarky sailors... all of it.

Why?

Well, for starters, at the time Order 99 was activated, those supposedly grumbly sailors on ships had been officially dry since oh, about... 1862.

The only people who would have felt the ban were the officers, who had access to wine until the alcohol ban went into effect.

And there are, let's just say, far fewer officers in the Navy than there are enlisted men. So the grumbling, if there was any, would have been fairly mild and contained.

Also, the first recorded instance of "cup of joe" in English is in 1930—in a book of “tramp and underworld slang”—16 years after the activation of Order 99.

To put that into perspective, that'd be like if we decided—in 2022—to call coffee a "cup of Dubya."

Or... a "cup of Flava Flav."

Or, I don't know, a "cup of Federline." Seriously, who even remembers who that is? I don't think Kevin even remembers.

So other than these huge inconsistencies, on the surface, this story is just too perfect—it's almost as if someone made it up to explain the term "cup of Joe." And that's probably exactly what happened.

An Alternative Explanation

One other theory which seems more likely has to do with coffee becoming the drink of the "common man," and "joe" being a common slang term to describe a "common man."

Well, more so around 1930 when "cup of joe" first shows up recorded.

But since then, we've also had "Joe College"—which also showed up in the 1930s—"Joe Blow," “Joe Citizen,” “Joe Schmoe,” “Joe Lunchpail,” “Average Joe,” “Joe Six-pack,” "G.I. Joe," "Joe the Plumber," and—the most famous one of all—"Joe Cool." (Miss you, big guy.)

So, this theory is certainly possible. It’s a lot better than the Josephus Daniels 1997-AOL-chain-letter-quality story.

A Likely Theory

Yet another theory suggests that "joe" came from a shortening of the term "jamoke," which was itself a shortening of the words "Java and Mocha." Seems possible enough, but what makes this seem highly likely is a passage in the 1931 Reserve Officer's Manual that says the following:

"Jamoke, Java, Joe. Coffee. Derived from the words Java and Mocha, where originally the best coffee came from."

So there you have it—if any of the stories out there are true, I have a feeling this is probably the one.

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