There are three popular theories on why coffee is referred to as a “cup of Joe.” The first theory is that it is named after Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, who banned alcohol on navy ships and made coffee the standard beverage.
The second theory is that it is a reference to “Joe” as a generic term for the average man, implying that coffee is a drink for the masses.
The third theory is that “Joe” is a shortened version of “Java,” the island in Indonesia where coffee originated. Each of these theories provides a possible explanation for the origin of the term “cup of Joe,” but the true reason remains unknown.
Let’s talk about each one of these 3 theories in more detail so you can decide which one is the most likely reason that coffee is called a “Cup of Joe”.
1. World War I and Josephus Daniels
During my research, this seemed to be the ‘main’ theory, even though most linguists dispute that this is the origin of ‘Joe’.
During World War I, a fella called Josephus Daniels became the secretary of the Navy. This guy was pretty religious, and he very quickly started to make changes in the Navy. He figured that his ideas would improve the lives of everybody on the ships. This, in turn, would make the United States a force to be reckoned with.
Among his many changes was the banning of alcohol. He didn’t want it on the ships at all. Instead, he increased the coffee rations. The legend is that because he was the one that increased coffee consumption, the sailors started to call the coffee ‘Joe’ and the name stuck.
The problem with this theory is that nobody actually refers to coffee as being called ‘Joe’ until well into the 1930s. This was over a decade after Josephus Daniels decided to ban alcohol. You would think that if the sailors were calling the coffee ‘Joe’ as standard in the 1910s, the name would have been mentioned well before then. Still, it is a nice story.
I think the only thing that really lends credibility to this theory is the fact that ‘Cup of Joe’ only appears in American English. It does not appear in British English (they use ‘cuppa’ instead, although that refers to both tea and coffee), and if the term really did evolve on the American Navy boats, then it makes sense that the term would only ever be used in the United States.
2. Java and Jamoke
The theory that “cup of Joe” is a shortened version of “Java,” the island in Indonesia where coffee originated, suggests that the term is a nod to the origins of coffee. Java was once a major coffee-producing region and was known for producing high-quality beans.
As coffee became more popular, the term “Java” became synonymous with the drink itself. Over time, “Java” was shortened to “Joe,” and the term “cup of Joe” was born. This theory aligns with the long history of coffee as a global commodity, with different regions contributing to its growth and development.
The term “cup of Joe” may have originated as a way to refer to coffee from Java in a casual, informal manner, and it has since become a widely used term for coffee.
3. The Average Man
Ever heard the term ‘average Joe’? Well, this is a term that means ‘the average man’.
There are some that theorize that a cup of coffee became known as ‘Joe’ when it started to become the drink of the average man.
While I couldn’t really find any linguists that agreed with this idea, I can see why people have theorized this. After all, coffee is the working man’s breakfast drink.
The term ‘average Joe’ certainly predates ‘Cup of Joe’. In fact, it predates it by about 75-years. The term was being heavily used in the 1930s too, which lines up with the time that ‘Cup of Joe’ first started to be used.
Some people have theorized that the term ‘Cup of Joe’ was invented by the military as a way to refer to it as the average man’s drink. However, I couldn’t really find any evidence that the military was heavily using the word ‘Joe’ in the 1930s. Their heavy word usage didn’t start until the 1940s when they used ‘Joe Blow’ instead.
We are never going to know exactly where the term ‘Cup of Joe’ came from. In fact, the chances are pretty high that it may have a completely different origin to the theories that we mention on this page. One thing is for sure, though; even though we don’t know where the word comes from, you are never going to stop Americans loving a good old ‘cup of Joe’.