English is full of seemingly-random colloquial sayings and informal names for things. Why do we use the word "cool" when we approve of something, and why does "hanging out" mean spending time with someone! Another common example is calling your coffee "a cup of joe." Have you ever wondered why coffee is called joe?
The U.S. Navy and Secretary Joe
No one is certain how this term came to be, but historians have a few theories. The first one goes back to the U.S. Navy in the early 1900s. Josephus Daniels, was appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1903 by President Woodrow Wilson. In 1914, the year that World War I began, he made a General Order 99 dictating that sailors could no longer drink alcohol on U.S. Navy ships.
Because of this unpopular rule, the strongest drink allowed on naval ships was then coffee. The story goes that the soldiers were very displeased with this new restriction, so they would call their cups of coffee "a cup of Joe" to spite the secretary of the U.S. Navy. Although no one knows whether this is the case, I can definitely picture a group of disgruntled sailors drinking their coffee and contemplating their hatred of Josephus "Joe" Daniels.
However, English language researchers don't buy this theory. According to research, the first known usage of "joe" to describe coffee was in 1930, years after the hated General Order 99. Because of this, many linguists feel that "a cup of joe" has other origins. One linguist in particular, Michael Quinion, has looked into this question extensively. One theory is that it's the combination of two slang terms for coffee, "java" and "jamoke." "Joe" is the shortened version of these words, taking the "j" from the beginning and the "oe" from "jamoke."
If you're wondering what the heck "jamoke" is, it's actually a combination of two other words- "mocha" and "java." As for "java," this word probably comes from the island of java. Since many words derive from other related words, it's easy to imagine coffee shop regulars eventually saying "a cup of joe" in place of "a cup of jamoke."
The Average Joe
Another theory from Snopes about the origin of "joe" involves the slang term "joe." Joe is a slang word for the common man, or an "average joe." This slang term has been used to describe the average man in English since 1846. Since coffee is a popular pick-me-up for all, a cup of coffee is considered a "common man's drink."
Here's a video explaining these theories about the name "a cup of joe:"
There's no way to know how coffee came to be known as "joe," so pick your favorite theory and stick to that! The next time you hit up Starbucks or your local coffee shop for some cold brew, a latte or shot of espresso, maybe you'll take an extra second to contemplate the origins of your cup of joe.
Enjoy Country Music?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.