Claim: Coffee is sometimes referred to as a “cup of joe” because of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, August 2007]
Where does the term “cup of Joe” (coffee) come from?
I think the strongest explanation i’ve heard is:
“Josephus Daniels (18 May 1862-15 January 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his reforms of the Navy were inaugurating the practice of making
Origins: While those of the Starbucks generation may almost think they discovered the drink, coffee, that enticing hot brew, has been part of everyday experience in Western society for a number of generations. It has fueled the productivity of countless offices and imparted warm comfort to innumerable half-frozen G.I.s, and it’s been the prominent beverage in multitudinous housewifely gatherings (coffee klatches)
and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Over its history of popularity in Western culture coffee has attracted affectionate nicknames such as “java” and “joe,” and it is the latter which concerns us, because unlike the origins of the term “java,” how the beverage came to bear the appellation of “joe” is still a bit of a mystery. (We colloquially term coffee “java” because at the time the beverage became popular in the
One theory ascribes the nickname to Josephus “Joe” Daniels who, while Secretary of the Navy during World
It’s a charming theory, but it just doesn’t hold up. Prior to 1914, the
There are far fewer officers than there are sailors, thus the impact of General
There are two stronger theories for how “coffee” came to be “joe,” but neither is verifiable. The first asserts that “joe” is a corruption of one of two other slang words for coffee: java and jamoke, the latter itself a compression of java and mocha. Under that theory, a “cup of jamoke” could easily have slip-slid its way into being a “cup of joe.” People do love to shorten their slang terms, after all.
The second postulates that since “joe” is argot for a “fellow, guy, chap” (the earliest sighting of its being used that way dates to 1846), that a “cup of joe” thus means the common man’s drink. The lexicon of English is replete with instances of “joe” being used to denote a typical guy who is wholly interchangeable with any other guy in the same line of work or area of special interest: “G.I. Joe,” “Holy Joe” (a chaplain or especially sanctimonious person), “Joe College,” “Joe Blow,” and of course “the average joe.” “Cup of joe” therefore would be the stuff that fuels the common man.
One final theory suggests the term was sired by an mental association of “black” with “coffee,” with the 1860 Stephen Foster song Old Black Joe putting it all together. Yet the song, the lynchpin of the theory, makes no mention of coffee. Moreover, would a song that was hugely popular in 1860 spawn a widespread term that appeared only in 1930?
Of the two best theories, jamoke morphing into joe is the strongest contender thanks to this find by linguist Michael Quinion: “It is significant that an early example appears in 1931 in the Reserve Officer’s Manual by a man named Erdman: ‘Jamoke, Java, Joe. Coffee. Derived from the words Java and Mocha, where originally the best coffee came from.'”
Barbara “joe job” Mikkelson
Last updated: 5 February 2009
Ciardi, John. A Second Browser’s Dictionary and Native’s Guide to the Unknown American Language. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. ISBN 0-06015-125-0 (p. 156). Hendrickson, Robert. Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts on File, 1997. ISBN 0-86237-122-7 (p. 396). Morris, Evan. The Word Detective. New York: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0-45228-264-0 (p. 56). The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-861258-3.