A nice cup of Joe

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve probably drunk at least 20,000 cups of coffee so far in my life (and look forward to enjoying many more).

Although it’s not a term I use very often, I have long been aware of “a cup of joe” as a slang term for a cup of coffee.  I have often wondered about the origin of this term, albeit not enough to get round to trying to find out.

Today, however, my question was answered in a post on one of my favourite food blogs.  It turns out that it dates back to the First World War, when it was first used by the US Navy.  At the time, the Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s administration was a man called Josephus Daniels.  He was keen to improve the moral standard of the Navy and thus introduced several changes including the banning of alcohol.

Needless to say, this was not very popular with the sailors, who had to drink coffee instead of their alcoholic beverages of choice.  They began to refer disparagingly to a cup of coffee as “a cup of Joseph Daniels”, which soon got shortened to “a cup of joe” and the name stuck.

It certainly sounds like a plausible explanation for the term.  But…

… a bit of further research (i.e. skim-reading the Wikipedia page on Josephus Daniels) turned up another, somewhat longer, article that casts doubt on this explanation.  It points out that the US Navy at the time was actually a relatively sober outfit in any case so Daniels’ banning of alcohol (which seems genuinely to have happened, though it was actually just aboard ships, apart from special occasions) didn’t actually make  a very large impact on the lives of the enlisted men, since their rum ration had been abolished about 50 years earlier.  It did affect the officers, as it put a stop to their regular wine drinking, but there were relatively few officers and so, as the Snopes article charmingly puts it “the impact of [the alcohol ban] would have been relatively mild, certainly not the stuff of which rueful sobriquets are coined”.

The Snopes article asserts that the actual origin of “cup of joe” is unknown but does postulate a couple of other, more plausible, hypothoses.

One is that “joe” is a corruption of another slang term for coffee – either “java” (which is still in fairly regular usage) or “jamoke” (which I’ve never heard before); it doesn’t explain the origin of “java”, which I assume comes from one of the places that coffee is grown, but it says that “jamoke” is probably a portmanteau of “java” and “mocha”.

The other hypothesis is that it comes from the use of “joe” as slang for an ordinary man (a usage that is attested at least as far back as the 1840s).  The idea is that “a cup of joe” is the drink of the common man.

Ultimately, the origin of the term is and will presumably remain unknown.  Still, it may give you something interesting to think about next time you’re relaxing over a cup of coffee.

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