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Where Did The Phrase Cup Of Joe Come From

Woman enjoy morning cup of coffee

Photo: Grace Cary/Getty Images

According to a 2020 report from the National Coffee Association, Americans are drinking more coffee than ever before. Starting the day with a cup of joe, as the modest drink has long been called, is so habitual for many people that the Comprehensive Survey describes the caffeinated beverage as “essential to everyday life from coast to coast.”

While we’re quick to refer to the morning brew as a cup of joe, it’s unlikely that anyone uttering the idiom truly knows where it came from or what it means. Read on to find out the meaning of cup of joe and its potential origins.


Where does “Cup of Joe” come from?

Theories for the catchy moniker are as numerous as the ways to consume the beloved drink: It’s plentiful, and no way is right.

The phrase is so universal, in fact, it has spurred countless creative iterations in the name of coffee shops across the country. In New York City, for example, Joe Coffee Company, Cup of Joe Coffee Company, Java Joe Coffee Tea & Spice Merchant, and Bread and Joe all sell the popular beverage known as a cup of joe.

But three theories about the origin of the slang usually rise to the top.

One theory for the origin of the cup of joe goes like this: In 1914, a ban on alcohol on US Navy ships enforced by Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels meant that the strongest drink available aboard ship was coffee black. It wasn’t long before angry sailors began referring to the hot beverage as joe or cup of joe, a nod to the Secretary of the Navy.

Gabrielle Bernstein, co-founder of Joe Coffee Company, of which there are now 20 in New York City, subscribes to this theory: “What I’ve always heard about the origin story of the cup of joe is that it was during WWII, and there was a sergeant who didn’t allow the troops to drink alcohol, so he gave them lots of coffee instead.” The forbidding sergeant’s name was Joe, and so, says Bernstein, “they started calling coffee ‘a cup of Joe.'”

Another theory plays into this story: Many believe the cup of joe nickname is a way of saying that coffee is common—it’s a drink for common men. Joe, being a common noun, represents the basic beverage (although coffee is often far from basic these days). The coffee was not a cappuccino or a latte or a white or iced infusion. It was coffee grounds and water. Warm, caffeine-filled, and open to milk or sugar additives, the coffee was ordinary. Low key, low key, cheap and useful.

The third and no less convincing explanation of how the cup of joe came about dates back to the 1930s, when the most popular nickname for coffee was jamoke, from mocha java. Some linguists say joe is a shortened version of jamoke. Research by British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion supports this understanding of the origin of the cup of joe.

However, the cup of joe captivates as much as it lasts, taking coffee back to its roots.

Long before Starbucks graced every street corner and shopping plaza, and before New England favorite Dunkin’ Donuts hit the scene, coffee was largely unadorned and wholesome. Regular coffee replaced tea during the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It wasn’t long before Maxwell House and Folger’s Coffee became household staples.


According to a 2020 report from the National Coffee Association, Americans are drinking more coffee than ever before. Starting the day with a cup of joe, as the modest drink has long been called, is so habitual for many people that the Comprehensive Survey describes the caffeinated beverage as “essential to everyday life from coast to coast.”

While we’re quick to refer to the morning brew as a cup of joe, it’s unlikely that anyone who utters the idiom truly knows where it came from or what it means. Read on to find out the meaning of cup of joe and its potential origins.


Where does “Cup of Joe” come from?

Theories for the catchy moniker are as numerous as the ways to consume the beloved drink: It’s plentiful, and no way is right.

The phrase is so universal, in fact, it has spurred countless creative iterations in the name of coffee shops across the country. In New York City, for example, Joe Coffee Company, Cup of Joe Coffee Company, Java Joe Coffee Tea & Spice Merchant, and Bread and Joe all sell the popular beverage known as a cup of joe.

But three theories about the origin of the slang usually rise to the top.

One theory for the origin of the cup of joe goes like this: In 1914, a ban on alcohol on US Navy ships enforced by Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels meant that the strongest drink available aboard ship was coffee black. It wasn’t long before angry sailors began referring to the hot beverage as joe or cup of joe, a nod to the Secretary of the Navy.

Gabrielle Bernstein, co-founder of Joe Coffee Company, of which there are now 20 in New York City, subscribes to this theory: “What I’ve always heard about the origin story of the cup of joe is that it was during WWII, and there was a sergeant who didn’t allow the troops to drink alcohol, so he gave them lots of coffee instead.” The forbidding sergeant’s name was Joe, and so, says Bernstein, “they started calling coffee ‘a cup of Joe.'”

Another theory plays into this story: Many believe the cup of joe nickname is a way of saying that coffee is common—it’s a drink for common men. Joe, being a common noun, represents the basic beverage (although coffee is often far from basic these days). The coffee was not a cappuccino or a latte or a white or iced infusion. It was coffee grounds and water. Warm, caffeine-filled, and open to milk or sugar additives, the coffee was ordinary. Low key, low key, cheap and useful.

The third and no less convincing explanation of how the cup of joe came about dates back to the 1930s, when the most popular nickname for coffee was jamoke, from mocha java. Some linguists say joe is a shortened version of jamoke. Research by British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion supports this understanding of the origin of the cup of joe.

However, the cup of joe captivates as much as it lasts, taking coffee back to its roots.

Long before Starbucks graced every street corner and shopping plaza, and before New England favorite Dunkin’ Donuts hit the scene, coffee was largely unadorned and wholesome. Regular coffee replaced tea during the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It wasn’t long before Maxwell House and Folger’s Coffee became household staples.


Video about Where Did The Phrase Cup Of Joe Come From

Why Is Coffee Called A Cup Of Joe?

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See how at the end I rush off to go to the toilet because I had drank too much coffee? Guess what, I don’t even drink the stuff. That’s what we call acting children.

“Modern Jazz Samba”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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