The REAL Reason Coffee is Called ‘Joe’
Coffee is one of those age-old drinks that we all hold close to our hearts. It is loved by millions of people the world over and is used as the centerpiece to many a business meeting, romantic date, family get-together, or catch-up with old friends.
There are a few theories as to why coffee is called ‘Joe’, from the US Navy, to common slang, to coffee terminology. The most plausible reason is that it relates to the term ‘your average Joe’, emphasizing how coffee is consumed widely around the world, by people of all backgrounds.
One of the quirks about coffee that is not particularly common amongst other drinks is the number of different names we have for it. Sure in the English language, we call coffee by its true name, but colloquially it is often referred to as ‘Joe’. But, have you ever stopped to wonder why we call coffee Joe? Because I certainly have and after doing some research, the answer was very interesting!
Why is Coffee Called Joe?
Now, with many of these urban legends, no one really knows the exact origins of the phrase, but we can definitely take an educated guess based on the evidence we have out there. So, here are the most likely theories:
The US Navy:
One of the most popular theories for why coffee is referred to as Joe is that back in 1913, Secretary of the US Navy Josephus Daniels imposed a ban on all alcohol aboard his fleet of ships. Since this was just before the first world war broke out, it is easy to see why a ban on alcohol would make sense.
However, the unexpected consequence of this decision was that the strongest drink that sailors had available to them was, low and behold, coffee. It is therefore thought that the origin of the word Joe being used to describe coffee stemmed from a reference to old Josephus Daniels himself, as the Navy sailors were pretty hacked off that they couldn’t drink alcohol!
So really, coffee was only referred to as Joe as a protest to the alcohol ban on the Naval ships.
However, there is some debate out there as to whether this was the real origin of the phrase, as apparently there wasn’t actually that much alcohol being consumed on navy ships at the time anyway…
An interesting theory that is steeped in patriotism, but a little shaky when it comes to its authenticity perhaps.
The Everyman’s Drink
Perhaps a more reasonable theory would be that due to the popularity of coffee in the late 1800s, it was referred to as Joe as a reference to the ‘average Joe’ drinking it. This would definitely make sense as this turn of the phrase first started being used around that time and coffee had definitely taken the world by storm!
However, it is pretty difficult to track this down and actually prove it, but if we use common sense it is definitely a plausible explanation.
Another more specialist concept is that the reference of Joe came from a combination of coffee-related slang terms. This really is one for the coffee nerds out there!
The theory here is that a cup of joe actually came about by combining java and jamoke (itself a mashup of java and mocha). Instead of referring to coffee as a cup of jamoke, it was shortened to a cup of jamoke.
Personally, I’ve never heard anyone refer to coffee as jamoke, but we’ll have to take the English language researchers’ word for it!
Other Names for Coffee
Now we have (kind of) established where the term ‘a cup of joe’ has originated from, let’s take a look at some other common terms for coffee, so you don’t get let floundering at your local coffee house!
Java is a small Indonesian Island that historically would grow coffee plants. But, it was actually the Dutch that traveled to the Island of Java in the 1600s and ruled them for over 300 years that first introduced coffee beans.
Coffee was then exported from the small island of Java all around the world, hence the colloquial term sticking. Originally the term Java would have referred to beans grown on the island itself, but it more than likely become a more mainstream word as coffee was more widely consumed around the world.
You may have heard coffee being referred to as Jamoke, but the word has a dual meaning. It can also refer to an average or unimpressive person in a derogatory way. It stems from the two words Java and Mocha.
Espresso refers to the coffee brewing method that generates our beloved espresso coffee. The origins of the Italian word came from ‘esprimere’ which means to push out. Some people use coffee and espresso interchangeably, but what they are actually referring to is the specific brewing method of forcing water through the ground coffee beans under high pressure to create the drink in a shorter amount of time.
In the English language, we may refer to a coffee shop or house as a cafe. However, many European countries refer to coffee itself as cafe, a handy tip when you are next travelling on the continent.
Cafe actually has its origins in Turkey, as it is their word for coffee. It was then adopted by the French and then repurposed by the British to describe coffee shops.
Brew refers to the method of making coffee. By pouring hot water over ground coffee beans, you extract the coffee liquid we know and love through percolation.
Coffee is sometimes referred to as go juice due to its caffeine content. This is the stimulant that perks us up and stops us feeling tired (rather than actually giving us additional energy). This is why coffee is typically consumed in the morning, to give the drinker a kick start to their day.
Like many slang terms, the origin of why coffee is called ‘a cup of joe’ is about as clear as a cup of coffee itself.
There are a few different theories that we can assess for their validity, all of which give a possible explanation. The patriot would probably like to believe the Navy theory, the blue-collar worker would lean towards the everyman idea and linguists would enjoy a combination of coffee-related terms.
Whichever is your preferred theory, we don’t really know the exact origin of the term a cup of joe, and the reality is, it probably came from a combination of all three ideas!
If you would like to find out more about the history of coffee, check out my article on the topic here!