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Why is Coffee Called “Joe”? 4 Fascinating Theories

a cup of coffee and coffee beans

When someone asks us if we have had a “cup of Joe” this morning, it typically reminds us to get our caffeine boost. But have you ever wondered where this phrase came from? It is a common phrase used by most of the American population, especially coffee drinkers. There are many theories behind the origin of the nickname that span different times in history. We’ll explore all of these theories, and you can decide which one you believe.

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4 Theories on Why Coffee is Called Joe

1. Military Connection

The first theory is the one most popularly associated with the origin of this phrase. In 1914, Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels banned alcohol from his ship and wouldn’t allow his sailors to drink it. As a result, the sailors started drinking coffee at an increased rate. They all started calling their daily coffee “cups of Joe” to make fun of their superior’s decision. It’s then said that when they reached port, the navy men spread the phrase around until it became a common language.

Soldier with coffee vintage
Image Credit: Needpix

However, a few facts make this theory unlikely. First, alcohol was already hard to obtain on military ships, so it’s doubtful that Josephus Daniel’s men were affected by the ban. Furthermore, this occurred in 1914, and the phrase “cup of Joe” did not become part of the common language until the 1930s. The first usage of this phrase was found in a Reserve Officer’s Manual in 1931.

2. The Average Drink for the Average Man

The second theory is that as coffee became so common, people associated a common name with it. In the 1930s and 1940s, coffee was becoming more popular, and coffee became a regular drink among military men. Many men were in the military and the nickname G.I. Joe was commonplace. Therefore, “cup of Joe” could be a euphemism for a common man’s drink. The average person drinks coffee, so why not call it by an average man’s name?

3. Combining Terms

a cup of breve coffee
Image Credit: lu-photo, Shutterstock

The nickname could have evolved from different terms for coffee. During the 1930s, mocha and java were also becoming popular coffee terms. Some think “Joe” is a combination of java and mocha shortened. Phrases and words have been formed this way before in history, and there’s a chance it happened with this nickname as well.

4. The Trademark

Regardless of who uttered the phrase first, the Martinson coffee company actually trademarked the term “cup of Joe.” The company was founded in New York by Joe Martinson in 1898. Locals who often purchased his coffee called it “Joe’s coffee” or “cups of Joe.” It’s easy to believe that the phrase could start in a city as big as New York. Since so many people travel to and from New York, the phrase could have spread this way.

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After hearing all the theories, some seem more likely than others. But no matter where it came from, the phrase has been persistently used for decades and likely will be for decades to come. Now it’s time to get back to what really matters: enjoying your cup of Joe!

Some other cool stories & explanations:

Featured Image Credit: Andrija Petrovic, Shutterstock


Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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