Why is coffee called Joe?

There are almost as many terms for coffee as there are coffee drinkers: java and mocha show up a lot but, brain juice, jitter juice, the daily grind, go juice, morning cuppa are all popular too, and that’s just in plain English. 

It’s not surprising given how entrenched coffee is in our culture. But one nickname for coffee stands out as being just a bit different: a cup of joe.

Who’s Joe, and why is coffee called a cup of Joe? The history behind the phrase is a little murky, but we’ve looked into the question, and here’s what we’ve found. 

cup of java

Origin Theories: Cup Of Joe

There’s no one definitive answer as to why coffee is called a cup of Joe. 

However, we’ve narrowed the theories down to the leading schools of thought regarding their origins. There are three popular ideas on where the term cup of joe originated, and while none of them is definitive, they’re all pretty good stories that stand up well.

  • Navy slang and a rule in the officer’s manual
  • A trademark by Martinson Coffee in 1898
  • Coffee is an “average person’s” drink, and Joe is a common name

All of the theories come with their own particular stories and background, and all of them sound reasonable enough to be true. But, ultimately, it’s impossible to say for sure which theory is correct. Below, we dig a little deeper into the evidence for each one, so grab your brew and keep reading!

java is called Joe

The Navy

One story for the origin of the cup of joe says that it comes out of military slang and the anger of sailors directed at a superior officer. In the case of the nickname for coffee, it may have been just about the highest up that naval soldiers could go: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. 

There’s a longstanding tradition of sailors more than just liking their alcohol. The U.S. naval force tried to get the problem under control in part in 1862 by getting rid of the onboard spirit ration, which 

Things got even harder for naval servicemen in 1914 due to General Order 99. With one order, Secretary of the Navy Joe Daniels made it illegal to even have alcohol onboard U.S. navy ships with one swipe of a pen. 

Appointed by Woodrow Wilson, Daniels was already a guy who wasn’t popular with the men from the earliest days due to his reputation as a teetotaler and supporter of the temperance movement with his strict moral values. 

So it was no secret that the naval men were annoyed, but of course, they couldn’t insult or talk back to one of the highest officers.

In the wake of the prohibition on alcohol on board navy ships, heading into world war I, sailors turned to coffee. Due to their annoyance with the man who banned alcohol and promoted coffee, they started referring to their drinks as their “cup of joe,” and it became the strongest drink that was legal to have on navy ships.

But, there are some quibbles with this origin story for a cup of joe, namely that at least one of the stories seems to have taken place earlier than General Order 99. But this may be one of the ways the nickname became more popular.

americano

Marketing An Old Trademark

One of the major forces of pop culture is marketing, and that was just as true in the 1800s as it is today. The most direct answer to the question “Why is coffee called a cup of Joe” comes down to some creative marketing and an old trademark.

Martinson Coffee, based in New York, was founded by a man named Joseph (Joe) Martinson. His business was one of the earliest in the US to begin sourcing high-quality coffee beans from different locations around the world.

Martinson Coffee accordingly got a great reputation, not just because of the quality of its coffee but because of how outgoing and charming the CEO, Joe was. 

The company’s story goes that Joe’s early customers, mainly from his pushcart that he took up and down Manhattan’s Lower East Side, coined the term “cup of Joe” to distinguish his coffee from other brands that they encountered. It stuck. The company trademarked the nickname in 1898, and the brand still lives today, popular in New York, Boston, and Florida.

The Average Joe’s Drink

Finally, there’s the theory that coffee became a cup of joe because Joe is a ubiquitous name, and coffee is the common man’s drink. This theory doesn’t have much hard evidence behind it, but it’s the kind of history that’s easy to believe when it comes down to logic. 

The name Joseph has always been a fairly popular one in the U.S., with peak popularity in the early 20th century. 

According to Behind the Name, it’s consistently been in the top 50 names in the country for over 100 years. There’s a reason that phrases like “average joe”, “Joe six-pack,” “Joe schmoe” and so on are all ways to refer to the common person. There’s even “Joe Coffee.”

Looking back in time, coffee used to be an exotic treat. It only became more and more common in the late 1800s and into the 20th century.

Especially in the United States. As it became a staple of rich and poor alike, the theory goes that a cup of coffee became a cup of joe: a drink for men and women and children. The phrase took off and made it into one of the many slang terms used for coffee.

Overall, the history of the term is more challenging to prove than the Joe Martinson marketing efforts story, but like the naval slang explanation, it just makes sense as a reason for the beverage to have such an odd name. After all slang terms are always pretty weird!

Summary

All of the nicknames for coffee have interesting stories behind them. 

Java and mocha call up images of exotic places, while the cup of joe makes it sound like a homey comfort. While java is also popular, its origins as a phrase are not as hard to trace as to why we call coffee a cup of joe. A fun combination of the two creates java joe coffee, a major coffee company.

The most popular stories behind the phrase are all good ones, and they all hold up to logic or evidence, but there’s no way to know for sure. We think it’s probably a combination of all of them, and whichever you believe to be the right one, there’s no way to say for sure.

So why is coffee called a cup of joe? No one knows for sure. All we can conclude is it’s much more than just the drink of a common man and that coffee consumption has only continued to skyrocket since ‘Joe’!

ahmed

Ahmed Mir

Founder and Editor

Ahmed Mir is the founder of Sip Coffee House. If he isn’t working, you can probably find him experimenting with different brewing methods, hanging out outdoors, or traveling.