Why a Cup of Joe?

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

Coffee first became popular in the United States after the Boston Tea Party, when the switch from tea was seen as “patriotic.” Since that time, coffee is now accessible almost anywhere you go. In fact, a recent Reuters poll reports that sixty-three percent of American age 18 or older say they drank a “Cup of Joe” the previous day.

What gave way to the coffee culture? Science, for one, has convinced us that caffeine possesses multiple health benefits. Perhaps just as important though, is coffee’s social purpose. Today, coffee stations are a staple of the workplace, and tens of thousands of coffee shops serve as meeting places for friends, dates and coworkers. Making and brewing coffee has grown increasingly professional, too. Being a barista has become a career choice instead of a part-time job to make ends meet. And latte art has even inspired a national competition,

While the common nickname for a cup of coffee—a “Cup of Joe”— has been around a long time, its origins are still a bit mysterious. There are several theories that have been put forth, but none of them can claim to be the definitive explanation.

Some believe that the origin of “Cup of Joe” stems from a 1914 ban on alcohol on U.S. Navy ships imposed by the Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe’ Daniels. After his order, imposed near the beginning of World War I, the strongest drink a sailor could get on a ship was black coffee.

Those who believe this theory claim that sailors, angry about the ban, began to call coffee a “Cup of Joe” in protest. However, historians have cast doubt on this theory. For starters, alcohol was not widely available on Navy ships prior to the ban, so the ban would’ve had very little, if any, practical effect.

More importantly, historians believe that “Cup of Joe’ didn’t first enter the English language until about 1930. Linguists believe it came into being at that time as a corruption of another nickname common at that time: jamoke. Jamoke was itself a combination of nicknames java and mocha. Experts believe that, over time, jamoke may have transformed into “Joe,” since it’s natural for slang terms to shorten over the years.

Another theory holds that coffee came to be known as Joe, because joe itself is a slang term for a common fellow or guy.  In other words, coffee became a “Cup of Joe” because it was considered the common man’s drink.

While it’s basically impossible to definitively prove one way or another how these terms came to be perhaps it’s a debate best left as a discussion amongst friends…over a Cup of Joe, of course!