Why Do We Call it a Cup of Joe?

(Last Updated On: October 4, 2022)

If you’re not a morning person and were forced into being a morning person by the soul-crushing routine of adulthood under your favorite economic system, coffee is probably your go-to morning beverage. It might even be your afternoon drink of choice, which is probably not the best idea for your ability to sleep; caffeine has a half-life of about 5 hours. With coffee being a mainstay of so many daily lives, you’ve probably heard it called a “cup of Joe” even if you ardently avoid coffee. But… who is Joe anyway?

The Navy

America’s Navy is one of the more popularly-believed progenitors for our expression. In 1914 the Navy decided it was done with alcohol. The guy who issued the order was named Josephus Daniels–and nobody liked it. Obviously, it was unpopular within the Navy itself, and the American press wasted no time deriding the move as a play to “make the Navy soft” or whatever. Bear in mind that up to this point, sailors were provided a daily ration of rum in the Navy since 1794 (sailors who abstained from drinking were paid a little extra instead).

Unfortunately for those who wanted to drink at sea, Daniels was a teetotaler, which basically meant no alcohol. At least it’s a little funny that the Navy had a bunch of funerals for their booze before the order took effect. These funerals mostly involved booze.

Allegedly, sailors turned to coffee as a substitute for alcohol, calling their new beverage of choice a cup of Joe to annoy Josephus. 

It’s a fun story, but the coffee ban in the Navy hit in the 1910s, and the phrase “cup of Joe” didn’t enter the English lexicon until the 1930s. So somehow, if this theory were true, nobody in the Navy wrote down “cup of Joe” in the 16 years between Josephus’s order and 1930. 

We’re All Joe

More compelling, but certainly less entertaining, is the corruption of the words “java” and “jamoke;” two slang words for “coffee.” The word “jamoke” is made from smushing “java” and “mocha” together. “Java” originates from the Island of Java in Indonesia–one of the islands the Dutch brought coffee to in the 1600s when they were going through the motions (read: horrors) of colonialism. Java became synonymous with coffee for a while, and coffee is still grown in Java today. It’s a common theory that “cup of jamoke” or “cup of java” simply got turned into “cup of Joe” over time. 

The name “Joe” has been associated with the idea of an “everyman” since the 1840s, and coffee had already been widely exported through English speaking countries by this point. So it stands to reason that, with coffee being so widespread, people also just attributed it to being the beverage for the everyman. 

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About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.