Cup of joe — an expression of love, laziness, or derision?


There’s nothing like a cup of joe,
when the morning’s grey and grim and slow,
when the streets collide with the world outside,
when litter lies where lilies grow.

Just drink that smoking cup of black
and feel your feelings surging back.
Plus, spill a drop and a coffee shop
will sprout up from a sidewalk crack!”

– Bo Burnham

In a world where flat whites are trendy, espressos are sophisticated, and a fine drip cup is educated, the good ‘ol cup of joe is the steady, understated everyman’s drink. It’s a friend and the fun kind at that — the one with dubious origins and a touch of scandal. From outright insult to an interesting amalgamation, here are the potential origins of the phrase cup of joe.

The dry seas

The most persistent and widely accepted of the cup of joe’s origin stories is that joe refers to Josephus “Joe” Daniels, Secretary of the Navy during WWI. In 1914, Secretary Daniels, striving to instill greater discipline aboard ship, issued Order 99 and banned all alcohol from US Navy ships. With alcohol no longer available, sailors aboard naval vessels turned to coffee as their main drink. As a mock insult to Secretary Daniels and constant reminder of what they were being denied, the sailors dubbed their cups of coffee ‘cups of joe‘. While widely accepted as the origin of cup of joe, there is one major logical flaw with this story and that this timing. Secretary Daniels issued Order 99 in 1914 but the term cup of joe didn’t appear in print until 1930, 16 years after the ban and many years after those soldiers returned home.

Jamoke!

Java and Mocha to Jamoke to Joe… makes sense, right? If not, you are not alone! This interesting linguistic twist, which first came into use in the late 19th century, pays a modern tribute to the coffee that piqued the world’s interest in our favorite drink, Yemen Mocha shipped out of the port of Java, commonly known as mocha java. Prior to the first use of cup of joe, there was the cup of java mocha which was shorted to a cup of jamoke in the late 1800s. Michael Quinion, a British linguist strongly supports this origin theory after finding a reference to java, jamoke, and joe as slang words for coffee in the 1931 Reserve Officer’s Manual. Historians, alternatively (and interestingly!) proffer that Quinion actually created and coined the phrase.

The everyman’s cup

The third origin story is deeply rooted in American slang. At some point during the mid-19th century, the term “Average Joe” become the everyman, the middle of the road, highly relatable individual everyone could recognize and relate to. While no one can uncover a direct link between Average Joe and cup of joe, many believe that coffee, being America’s drink, became known as the cup of joe in the 1930s as it truly was everyman (and woman’s) drink. According to the book Uncommon Grounds, “98% of American families drank coffee regularly in 1930 including 15 percent of children between 6 and 16 years of age and 4 percent of children under 6”1. With nearly every American household able to purchase coffee, it truly was, and arguably still is, everyman’s drink.


1 https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/09/05/reviews/990905.05fusselt.html?pagewanted=all

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