Why Is Coffee Called a “Cup of Joe”?

Coffee goes by many nicknames, bean juice, java, brew, and the most common, a cup of Joe.  The origin of the phrase cup of Joe remains uncertain as there are different stories around it.

Like many origin stories, there are different tales about why coffee is called a cup of Joe. The most common theory revolves around the Navy and a ban on alcohol. Other theories include a reference to Joe as the common person and the combination of two names, java and mocha, to form ‘JaMoke.’

Theory from the U.S Navy and coffee

Josephus Daniels was in 1913 appointed the new Navy secretary. He banned alcoholic beverages on all U.S Navy ships in 1914, a move that displeased the sailors as the ban left them with coffee as the only strong beverage on board. Out of bitterness or mockery, the sailors nicknamed coffee ‘a cup of Josephus, ’ referring to the man who took away their booze.

A ‘cup of Josephus’ was a mouthful, and the name was shortened to a ‘cup of Joe’.

Historians dispute this theory. They state that the phrase ‘cup of Joe’ first appeared in the English lexicon in 1930. History also says that the alcohol ban happened before Order 99 and only affected naval officers who had access to alcohol until 1914.

‘A cup of Joe’ on board U.S navy ships served as a bitter reminder of the man who took away alcohol.  The name has been used for decades and is still common today.

Combining of coffee nicknames

English historians believe the term ‘cup of Joe’ appeared in the English lexicon in 1930, 16 years after the ban of alcohol on navy ships. During this time, coffee lovers had nicknamed the beverage java and mocha.

Over time, people combined the two names to make the slang word ‘Jamoke,’ and they would refer to coffee as a ‘cup of jamoke.’ The slang spread like wildfire, and the name eventually evolved to a ‘cup of Joe.’

The average person theory

This common man drink theory simply states that coffee is an ordinary person’s drink; it is not only consumed by people of a particular class in society. Joe is an English slang word meaning ordinary person.

The history behind the theory is that in U.S diners, customers would ask for a cup of coffee to go with their breakfast. The waitresses served a variety of people, regardless of their social status. This brought up the nickname, a ‘cup of Joe, ’ meaning coffee was for every person.  

Why is coffee called a cup of Joe?

Many theories try to explain the origin of the phrase ‘cup of Joe.’ Still, the reason coffee is called a cup of Joe remains unclear. The Jamoke name evolution to a ‘cup of Joe’ is believed to be more accurate as it is based on linguistics.

Why is coffee called a cup of Joe?

However, one more theory predates all other theories and has some historical backing.

The Martinson coffee theory.

This might be the earliest theory of why coffee is called a cup of Joe. Joseph Martinson’s family emigrated to the US from Latvia. Joseph started experimenting with coffee roasting and blending when he was only 16 years old. He would go on to sell this coffee from a pushcart.

He was an effective door-to-door salesman, and the smell of coffee was a bonus enough to get people to buy.

In 1898, he founded the Martinson Coffee Company in New York.

His was a story of ‘The American Dream, complete with a lineup of Rolls Royce in the 1930s. It is said the residents who’d buy his door-to-door coffee named it ‘Joe’s coffee’ or ‘a cup of Joe.’ There are also rumors that New Yorkers also called it a cup of Joe during the height of the company’s success.  

While Joseph Martinson might not have been the originator of the term, the company trademarked the phrase ‘cup of Joe.’ The company has since changed hands, moving as far as Canada.

While the origin is still unclear, the name has stood the test of time. Coffee continues to be a unifying beverage, enjoyed across all cultures and by everyone.

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