The Competing Theories Of How The Term 'Cup Of Joe' Was Coined

Coffee making, in all its forms, is a tradition. A tradition that our grandparents and their grandparents partook in. When we brew our coffee, we follow the pattern of hundreds of other mornings before. Coffee connects us. It's the United States' most popular drink, according to survey data collected between July 2020 and June 2021 (via Statista).

The Americas were introduced to coffee in the 18th century, as reported by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), though coffee didn't catch on until the Boston Tea Party when the colonies in support of the American revolution boycotted tea and needed some other caffeine boost. With America's long historical infatuation with coffee, people were bound to pick up a few quirks along the way, one of them being the term "a cup of Joe."

Biography author Lee Craig claims that a strict Navy secretary during World War I, Josephus Daniels, is responsible for the saying today (via Quartz). The story goes that Josephus Daniels wanted to tighten up his ship, so to speak, and forbade the indulgence of alcohol on Navy bases. Servicemembers began drinking more coffee. In this version of events, the new rule did not go over well with subordinates, and they allegedly began referring to coffee as "a cup of Joseph Daniels" to express their displeasure. But this story isn't to be immediately believed.

Coffee, war, and jamoke

As National Public Radio (NPR) reports, Snopes argues that the old Navy story is more myth than fact, noting that spirits had been effectively banned for most military members in the 1860s. Moreover, NPR notes that as World War I raged on, coffee became an absolute necessity for sleep-deprived and exhausted troops. The U.S. military became so reliant on coffee that the War Department went as far as to build local roasting and grinding plants in France to supply the troops with the stuff. Coffee historian Mark Pendergrast suggests that the beloved term "a cup of Joe" does originate in the military, but not thanks to Josephus Daniels. American soldiers were already infatuated and oftentimes reliant on coffee during World War II and the G.I. Joe's identity could have bled over and into the coffee industry.

However, there are other theories. The Roasterie explains that a different account is tied to the use of "Joe" as slang for "the common man," or "the common Joe." From there "a cup of Joe" was understood to be the "common man's drink." But the last and perhaps most likely theory is that "cup of Joe" evolved from "cup of jamoke." The term jamoke appears to be rooted in the words "Java" and "Mocha," where premium coffee was sourced from in the 1930s, according to linguist Michael Quinion (via Snopes). Americans may have turned jamoke into "Joe," giving us "a cup of Joe" today!