Why Is Coffee Called a Cup of Joe?

There are several different theories!

Dirt. Mud. Jitter juice. Java, pick-me-up, and of course, a cup of Joe. Coffee has many nicknames—you may know it as the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning—and they’re all pretty straightforward, especially if you take your coffee black. Whether you make it at home, haunt your local coffee shop, or duck into the nearest chain for a stamp on your loyalty card, coffee is a convenient and delicious way to feel more alert and kick-start your day—and these are the only tricks you need for a perfect pot. But all the brain juice in the world can’t solve this mystery: why is coffee called a cup of Joe?

Coffee wasn’t always a cup of Joe

Like happiness, coffee comes to us from many places, and in many forms. Latte, cold brew, or drip: they all started on the ancient Ethiopian plateau, when a goat-herder noticed his goats eating a berry that made them so energetic, they couldn’t sleep at night (if you’ve ever had coffee after 3 p.m., you can relate). The local monks found that the berries enabled them to stay alert for long hours of prayer, and coffee eventually spread to the Arabian Peninsula and Europe, and through colonization to Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas, where it was grown by enslaved peoples. Today, coffee is thankfully available with fair trade growing practices from about eighty countries. The history of coffee is long and fascinating, but it passes through hundreds of years without a Joe in sight. So where did this nickname come from?

Why is coffee called a cup of Joe?

The iconic nickname, a “cup of Joe,” has several origin stories. One legend concerns Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy during World War I. In 1914, he banned alcohol consumption on all U.S. Navy ships. Since coffee was the next strongest substitute, sailors sarcastically deemed it “a cup of Josephus,” but as that was a bit of a mouthful, the snarky nickname became shortened to just “a cup of Joe.” Have a coffee lover in your life? Check out the best gifts for coffee lovers.

So that’s why coffee is called a cup of Joe?

Well, not exactly. The Josephus Daniels story probably isn’t true. The term “cup of Joe” only appears in writing for the first time in 1930—long after the Navy’s ban on alcohol. Truthfully, the question “why is coffee called a cup of Joe?” has no clear answer. A much likelier theory is based on linguistics. This theory states that “Joe” is the simplified form of the word “jamoke,” which began as a nickname for coffee in the 19th century, a portmanteau of the coffee beans “Java,” and “mocha.” Therefore, “cup of jamoke” may have become shortened to a “cup of Joe.”

A third theory is based off the meaning of the word “Joe” in slang, as in “He’s just an average Joe.” This Joe refers to the common man on the street, a fellow, a guy, your neighbor who mows his lawn every Saturday at 8 a.m. (we wish he didn’t drink coffee). A cup of Joe is therefore a way of saying “the common man’s drink.” Maybe that’s why all coffee lovers have these things in common. The question “why is coffee called a cup of Joe” may not have a definitive answer, but at least now we know who to thank for our daily cup: that Ethiopian goat herder. Even if his name was Kaldi, not Joe.


Paper coffee filtersMarkus Guhl/Getty Images

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Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for RD.com.