There are many colloquial terms in the English language that we use to refer to everyday objects. One of the most frequently used of these colloquialisms is the name we use to refer to coffee, Joe. Although this association may be common knowledge among most Americans, the history beyond this association is known to a small handful of trivia fanatics and coffee lovers.
Why is Coffee called Joe? Three theories are typically used to explain the history of the colloquial usage of Joe to describe coffee. These theories include:
- The association of the common man and the word Joe
- Standard slang terms for coffee such as Java and jamoke
- A story involving the 1913 Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels
While there is no definitive answer as to the origins of coffee being referred to as Joe, these three theories are the most significant leads we have so far. Keep reading to learn more about these three theories and how they were developed.
Coffee and the Common Man Theory
This theory is the simplest of the three theories that provide explanations for coffee’s nickname. Essentially, this theory attributes the nickname “Joe” to the interrelation between coffee and the common man. Few beverages are as emblematic of the common man as coffee. In fact, coffee is statistically the most commonly drunk beverage.
People around the world consume more than 400 billion cups of coffee per year. Hundreds of millions of people around the world rely on coffee to get them through the day. Additionally, almost 25 million farmers rely on coffee beans and associated crops as their livelihood. Thus, it is clear that coffee as a beverage is inextricably linked to the common man.
It is fairly reasonable to postulate that referring to coffee as “Joe” could be an allusion to the colloquial phrase for the common man, “Average Joe.” However, many people may be ignorant as to the origins of this colloquialism too.
While “Average Joe” may seem like a universal saying, the phrase is only commonly used in English-speaking countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. The phrase grew in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the simple fact that Joe was an incredibly common name at the time.
While this may seem like an arbitrary reason for a saying to become popular, similar phrases have been popularized in many other countries around the world. In China, the saying “Zhang San, Li Si,” which references a few of the most popular Chinese surnames, is used in place of “Average Joe.”
In Denmark, the saying “Morten Menigmand,” which translates to “Morton Everyman,” is used in place of “Average Joe.” The Australians use the name “Fred Nurk” to signify an “Average Joe.” It is unclear whether or not Fred Nurk is actually a popular enough name in Australia to be comparable to Joe in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Ultimately, the connection between “Average Joe” and a cup of Joe seems tenuous. Still, with so many variations of Joe-inclusive phrases and colloquialisms, it would not be surprising if this theory turned out to be true.
Why Is Coffee Called Joe or Java?
The second-most simple theory that explains the origins of coffee’s nickname centers itself more around the common terminology for coffee itself. Although “Joe” is undoubtedly one of the most popular nicknames for coffee, it is certainly not the only nickname for coffee that has been floated around.
In fact, two nicknames, in particular, have drawn comparisons to “Joe.” These nicknames, Java and jamoke, have somewhat different origin stories of their own, but their relationship to the nickname “Joe” is similar.
The first nickname, Java, earned its namesake from the island of Java in Indonesia. This island was the primary source for most of the world’s coffee in the 1800’s – and, as a result, the name of the island became associated with its incredibly popular export.
The name “jamoke” has a much less direct origin story. The term, which was also used to refer to a foolish person or ignoramus, is believed to be an amalgamation of the two words Java and mocha.
As Java is the name of the island where most of the coffee in the world was once exported from, and mocha is one of the most popular coffee beverages worldwide, it makes sense that the two would be interchangeably used terms for coffee itself.
Now, the connection between Java, jamoke, and Joe is essentially that Joe is a shortened version of both Java and jamoke. This theory is certainly backed up by similar instances of this situation, such as car instead of carriage. Still, there is not enough evidence to definitively say that Joe’s origins are absolutely linked to either Java or jamoke.
The Josephus Daniels Theory
The third and final theory that hopes to explain the origins of coffee’s nickname delves far deeper into the history books than the other two. This theory revolves around the Secretary of the US Navy in the mid-1910s and the reforms he put into place during his tenure.
Josephus Daniels was appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson. The following year, Josephus Daniels issued a general ban on the serving of alcohol aboard Navy ships. This coincided with several other significant reforms, including the introduction of women into the service.
These reforms were both indicative of major social and political movements that were going on in the United States during this time, such as the feminist movement and prohibition. However, these reforms ended up having tangential consequences that may not have been intended by Josephus or any others who were involved in these movements.
One of these consequences happened to be that coffee consumption aboard Navy vessels increased dramatically. As alcohol had been banned aboard Navy ships, it was difficult for members of the Navy to find a drink strong enough to straighten their minds. The most potent drink that was available to the Navy men and women at the time was coffee.
Thus, coffee consumption experienced rapid growth amongst Navy men and women. While this may seem like a positive moment for the beverage, many Navy men did not match their amount of coffee consumption with equal enthusiasm. In fact, many of these Navy men detested Josephus Daniels for forcing them to give up their alcohol.
Thus, the name “cup of Joe” was invented as a biting indictment of the man who forced the drink upon the people of the Navy. This is what the Josephus Daniels theory poses. However, there are several holes in this theory.
For one, the first recorded entry of “cup of Joe” in the English language occurred in 1930, which is almost two decades after the reforms that took place under Josephus Daniels. Additionally, it is believed that Navy men and women were not actually as loathsome of Josephus Daniels and his prohibitive rules as previously believed.
Ultimately, while it is perhaps the most far-fetched of the three theories, it is also the most entertaining and informative.
Coffee lovers and trivia fanatics alike may still be searching for the true origins of why coffee is called “Joe.” However, it is fair to say that at least one of the three leading theories listed in this article is likely to be the true origin story.
While there is still no definitive answer to this question, it is certainly entertaining to learn a bit more about this incredible beverage’s history.