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Cup of Joe: History Behind the Name

Cup of joe. Cup o joe. Jitter juice. Brain juice. Cuppa joe. Jet fuel. Whatever you call it, coffee is the official morning drink of America. You can find a cup of coffee pretty much anywhere you go. We love to drink it so much that we even gave it nicknames, and I’m no exception. My morning always starts with a great cup of joe. How about you?

Cup of joe. Cup o joe. Jitter juice. Brain juice. Cuppa joe. Jet fuel. Whatever you call it, coffee is the official morning drink of America. You can find a cup of coffee pretty much anywhere you go. We love to drink it so much that we even gave it nicknames, and I’m no exception. My morning always starts with a great cup of joe. How about you?

Why Is Coffee Called a Cup of Joe?

Have you ever wondered where the slang term “cup of joe” comes from? How long has coffee been called a cup of joe? And why do we still call it that?

There are a few theories of how this idiom came about, although no one really knows for sure.

Josephus Daniels Theory

U.S. Navy sailors often call coffee a cup of joe.

First, I’ll tell you about the most popular theory. Josephus Daniels was the Secretary of the United States Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. 

He really didn’t like the negative reputation of the navy, so he made several changes to operations, one of which was General Order 99. This order banned alcohol from navy ships, and it wasn’t well received.

Because of this order, the strongest drink on a ship was coffee. As soldiers begrudgingly turned to java for their fix, they began calling it a “cup of Josephus Daniels” or cup of joe for short. It was just snarky enough to mock the Secretary without getting in trouble.

Now, I said this was the most popular theory. But, it’s also the least likely to be true

There are several accounts of the term cup of joe in use before Joe Daniels ever came on the scene. Some people say that sailors were using the phrase to refer to the instant coffee they had issued to them for their packs. Those came to the military from the G. Washington company.

Since the company owner’s first name was George, they called their morning java a cup of Geo. I’ll talk about Mr. Washington a little bit more after the next theory.

Common Man Theory

Common men working in a factory.

Now, the more likely of these theories is the common man idea. 

Way back in the 1800s, “Joe” was first recorded as a term used to refer to an everyday person. An average joe was someone who could swap with another person with the same skills or in the same group or profession. Think G.I. Joe, Joe Schmo, Joe Blow … you get the idea.

Because joe came to mean non descript man and coffee was a common morning drink, a cup of joe ended up meaning a common man’s drink.

Jamoke Theory

Men selling water in North Africa during World War I.

In addition to the two theories above, there’s also a third theory that the phrase cup of joe is a shortened version of two words: java and mocha.

During the First and Second World Wars, most coffee came from either Yemen or Indonesia. 

Originally, coffee from Yemen became called mocha and the coffee from Indonesia known as java because of the plants and beans that were native only to those areas.

Eventually, the terms became interchangeable and the two words blended together, creating the word jamoka or jamoke. Over time this term for a cup coffee was then shortened to the word joe, hence the phrase cup of joe. 

Who Coined the Phrase Cup of Joe?

A United States Navy Ship.

Whichever of the theories above you subscribe to, the actual term “cup of joe” was coined by sailors in the United States Navy. The question of when is what’s up for debate.

Some say that the sailors were referring to instant coffee supplied by the George Washington company, lovingly called a cup of Geo – Joe – during World War I. By the way, this George Washington isn’t the same guy that was president; they just had similar names. More on this in a bit.

Others say it was after Joseph Daniels banned alcohol on the ships, which made coffee the strongest drink a sailor could get while on their tour of duty.

Also, the first recorded instance of the term cup of joe wasn’t written until 1931, in a military manual by a man named Erdman.

He’s the one who says that the alternate name for coffee comes from the third theory I talked about earlier, where java and mocha combined and then shortened to joe.

In spite of the debate of the origin story, one thing that everyone agrees on is that sailors are the reason we call coffee a cup of joe.

How Was a Cup of Joe Made in WWI?

Soldiers drank a cup of joe in trenches during WWI.

Way back in World War I times, the most popular form of coffee issued to soldiers was instant coffee. Easy to carry and easy to make, it was the drink of choice of the military. All the soldiers needed was hot water to enjoy a minute of coffee and comfort.

The first person to be able to mass produce instant coffee was a man by the name of George Washington, who owned the G. Washington Coffee Company.

Like I mentioned before, this isn’t the same guy who was president. George was an immigrant who supplied the military with all the java they needed in little packets, perfect for taking to the front lines.

Soldiers would refer to their drink as a cup of George, which is what some people think is the origin of the term cup of joe. The name George was shortened to Geo, and that changed over time to joe.

Why Is the Term “Cup of Joe” Still Used Today?

An average joe sitting under a coffee sign.

So, why is it we still call coffee a cup of joe, even today? Well, that stems from the common man idea.

Coffee is still an amazingly popular drink amongst the military as well as civilians and since it’s consumed worldwide it’s considered a common man’s drink, like water.

It sticks because, as old a phrase as it is, it’s still as relevant today as it was over a century ago. You can even buy coffee mugs relating the phrase to President “Joe” Biden. That shows just how much it’s a part of American culture.

Coffee is an everyday drink for everyday people, and I for one wake up to a fresh cuppa joe every morning.

Cup of Joe FAQ

The idiom is cup of joe. Cup of Jo is a lifestyle website.

No one really knows. Although, there are a couple of theories about this phrase’s origin. The most popular and least likely theory is the story of Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy in 1913.

According to legend, he dedicated his life to elevating the moral standards of the naval military. As part of his changes, he banned alcohol aboard ships. This led the sailors to drink more coffee, much to their dismay. Thus, they began calling their morning coffee a “cup of joe”, as a way to mock the Secretary. 

No. Since the “joe” in a cup of joe refers to a cup of coffee, it’s not capitalized like a proper noun. 

Josephus Daniels was Secretary of the Navy in 1913. Although no one knows for sure, the origin of the slang phrase for coffee, a “cup of joe”, allegedly comes from him based on a story about an order he issued to ban alcohol on navy ships. 

According to one of the origin stories of the phrase, joe does refer to Josephus Daniels. But no one really knows where the idiom cup of joe comes from. There are a few more stories which are much more likely to be the true origin.

No. He passed away on January 15th, 1948.

Back then, coffee was sometimes the only thing sailors could get fresh. In addition, because of General Order 99, which banned alcohol, it was the strongest drink available on a navy ship. They would brew their cup o joe super strong to help keep them warm and alert while on watch. Who doesn’t like a nice jolt of caffeine to help them stay awake?

Sure! Even though coffee has an important connection to the military and their traditionally strong method of brewing, most drip coffee and instant coffee is referred to as a cup of joe. 

Not so much the toy brand, but it is yet another theory that the phrase cup of joe could have been derived from Government Issue Joe or G.I. Joe for short. G.I. Joe was a term used to refer to soldiers generically, as in an everyday common man or fighter. 

Since coffee was the morning drink of choice for the average joe, it wasn’t a far jump for it to become slang for coffee. 

A cup of joe is a generic term to refer to any type of regular coffee. Cowboy coffee, on the other hand, is a certain method for brewing. Coffee grounds are heated in water and once the grounds settle, the brewed coffee is poured off into a cup.

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