Your Questions Answered: Why is Coffee Called Joe (or Cup of Joe)?

Welcome to "Your Coffee Questions Answered", where we answer all your lingering questions about coffee, coffee culture and coffee adjacent questions. We dive down the rabbit hole to try and provide you a definitive(ish) answer. 

This week we are tackling the origin of people referring to coffee as Joe or Cup of Joe.  

 Please check out the video and subscribe to our channel or scroll down to read what we found out (you can even do both!).


Why is Coffee called Joe or a Cup of Joe?

There are multiple theories from boring old marketing to Navy sailors lampooning their boss so let's dive in. 

The first one comes to us from the Navy

The theory goes that Joseph “Joe” Daniels, who was appointed as Secretary of the Navy in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson, banned serving alcohol on ships in 1914 with General Order 99. After that sailors started calling their coffee “joe” as a mock salute since directly insulting a superior officer is considered to be a bit of a no-no. 

There are however a few issues with this: First and most significant is that Navy Ships had been essentially dry since 1862 when the “spirit ration” was abolished for all sailors and officers.  Now it was true that in 1893 Officers were allowed to have a “wine mess” and the order did put a stop to that. However there are significantly less officers than sailors both on ships and across the Navy so it stands to reason the order simply brought the officers into compliance with the rules for the sailors and was more likely than not seen as leveling the playing field not something that would have emboldened sailors to mock their boss. 

Just your Average Joe

This is to my mind the most boring theory, and it states that coffee had become so common in the1930s and 40s that people started to call it a common name, “Joe”.  Sometimes this is often tied to the nickname for military men and calling them G.I. Joes and they drank a lot of coffee to stay alert ie then calling it a cup of Joe.

This falls flat for a few reasons that we’ll circle around to.

Pure Marketing

Martinson Coffee, owned by one Joe Martinson, actually trademarked “Cup of Joe” at some point in their history. While the company was founded in 1898 I wasn’t able to find the date for the trademark. My hunch is that the trademark came after the popularity so they could use it to sell more of their coffee. 

The Brits

As I dove down the rabbit hole that is the history of coffee and its names I inevitably bumped into a guy named Michael Quinion. This guy is a writer, linguist and Cambridge grad. He postulates that the term “Cup of Joe” is a blending of the many different names people referred to coffee, Mocha, Java and then jamoke bringing us to Joe.

This theory even has some real historical text to back it up. Again from Quinion’s research citing the 1931 Reserve Officer’s Manual where a man named Erdman writes “Jamoke, Java, Joe. Coffee. Derived from the words Java and Mocha, where initially the best coffee came from.”

This example makes sense, it’s straightforward and is recorded. The British were literally everywhere, recorded everything and were responsible for many many customs, commodities and parts of speech being shared with the world. It makes sense that they would be behind “Cup of Joe” as well. I mean try saying it with a snooty British accent, it completely works. 

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