Coffee is the main component of caffeinated rituals practiced day and night by hundreds of millions of people across the globe. But for such a common beverage, we know considerably little about its various names and where they all originated.
Historically speaking, it is generally agreed that the formal English word “coffee” is derived from the Italian word “caffe”, which in turn came from the Turkish pronunciation ”kahveh” of the Arabic word “Qahwah”. Considering that coffee was first cultivated in Yemen, this history is a fairly easy one to grasp.
But coffee has many other names, most of them colloquial, including “Java”, “brew” or even the caffein frenzied “cupped lighting”.
Among all of these informal names, by far the most prevalent and the most perplexing name for the favorite caffeinated drink is “Joe”.
There are many theories about the roots of this nickname pervading the annals of coffee. However, there seems to be very little consensus on where the name actually originated.
Among the two most verifiable theories is the proposal that the nickname “Joe” comes from the saying “average Joe”, a name used to refer to a perfectly average American male.
When it comes to nicknames, reams of research papers have been written to support the notion that products are more popular and attractive when they are easier to pronounce and appeal to the common citizen.
If this theory is true, then it would make sense to market coffee, an exotic product grown in exotic places, as drink tailored to the average Joe.
As it turns out, the most widely accepted theory is also the one with the most empirical evidence. Writer, linguist and Cambridge graduate Michael Quinion offers that the term is a concatenation of the many different names already used to refer to coffee such as “mocha”, “java”, or “jamoke”.
Quinion cites an example in the 1931 Reserve Officer’s Manual, where a man named Erdman writes, “Jamoke, Java, Joe. Coffee. Derived from the words Java and Mocha, where initially the best coffee came from”. Such a historical instance is hard to refute.
The most common explanation for why we call coffee “a cup of Joe” dates back to June 1, 1914. On this day, Secretary of the Unit-ed States Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels imposed a general ban on serving any alcoholic beverages aboard United States Navy ships.
With the exception of a few special occasions, not a drop of alcohol would be had by any of the crew after that. Resorting to the second strongest beverage the men could get their hands on, coffee consumption skyrocketed aboard the ships, and the steaming hot beverage was christened “cup of Joe” after Secretary Daniels.
Although this theory rings of old-timey patriotism and brotherhood, it is actually the least likely explanation for the origins of the nickname “Joe”. Spirit rations have at times been a staple of the nutritional items distributed among the US Army, but they were discontinued in 1932 and replaced with a ration of coffee and sugar.
After a brief reinstatement in 1846, the spirit ration was abolished once and for all in 1865, long before Secretary Joe Daniels imposed the ban on alcohol. Since alcohol was already a rarity by the time Joe Daniels was around, it is unlikely that his ban had any impact on the crew’s coffee consumption, or on the history of coffee’s most popular nickname.
Another unlikely theory is put forth by Martinson Coffee Company in New York City, who claim that many of their devoted customers attribute the nickname “cup of joe” to the Martinson Coffee Company’s founder Joe Martinson.
However, other than literature put forth by the Martinson Coffee Company themselves, there is no written evidence available to support this theory.
Although there is little consensus on the many possible origins of the nickname “Joe” for coffee, it’s quite obvious which one has the most supporting evidence.
Regardless of what you call your favorite caffeine beverage, no matter what time of day you prefer to enjoy it, one point we can all agree on is that the beverage is more popular than it has ever been in human history.
Brewing it in your favorite style, drinking it from your favorite cup, enjoying it at home or in your favorite coffee shop, the delicious beverage can make your problems melt away, even if it’s just for a few fleeting moments.