Jitter juice. Brew. Java. Liquid energy. Mud. Cuppa. Morning jolt. And of course, cup of Joe. Whatever you wanna call it, it’s the same aromatic drink in the morning that 1 billion of us all over the world love to wake up to and jumpstart our day with — coffee. You can brew your own if you have time to spare or just drop by your favorite coffee shop if you’re in a morning rush. You could add milk, chocolate, a dash of cinnamon, top it with whipped cream, heck, even a pinch of salt (Yep. Read more about it here if you’re intrigued.) But here’s the real question: Why, of all the names, is it called “cup of Joe”? Who even is Joe?

Thanks Be To The Goat

Colombian Coffee from Cachipay, Cundinamarca. (Felipe QuijanoCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before coffee reached our cups and mugs, it all started far back in Ethiopia in the late 15th century. One legend says coffee grew wildly in the ancient coffee forest on the Ethiopian plateau where a goat herder named Kaldi was herding his goats. After eating the berries of a certain tree, some of them became so energetic that they did not want to sleep at night. (Imagine all the baa and maa that he had to endure the whole night.) Kaldi, who was also an abbot, shared his accidental discovery with the other monks in their monastery the next day, probably after being asked why he looked tired. The knowledge of these berry energizers began to spread like a communicable disease. Both the rumors and the coffee reached east, in the Arabian peninsula, and then eventually in Europe that colonized Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas, where they tasked the enslaved nations to grow coffee, the journey taking a whole hundred years. Although, none mentioned Joe. The question was still unanswered.

Possible Roots

There were three theories on where the “cup of joe” term came from:

Joe From the Navy

You know how military culture loves nicknames almost as much as acronyms? The newly appointed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, banned alcohol consumption during World War I and prostitutes from the Naval bases(Without one the other isn’t nearly as attractive). He was a bit of a puritan and Prohibitionist and was appalled at the rough manners and vices embraced by sailors in the U.S Navy. He also added religious chaplains in the naval service, all with the purpose of cleaning up the negative image of the sailors at that time as drunkards, whoremongers, and brawlers. Or course banning alcohol didn’t completely eliminate all booze from ships, after all, they ran on steam and steam is what you need to run a still.  To this day, the Navy still catches sailors making “Torpedo Juice” with stills hidden in paint lockers and other places down in the Engineering section. Doubling down, by 1918, alcohol could not be served within five miles of a navy base.  To say that the navy ranks were upset is an understatement and harmless ice cream of all things was introduced to navy ships as a replacement to ward off mutinies.  The next strongest drink available to the sailors of the fleet was coffee, dark as crude oil and strong as Hell. The sailors in a kind of mock protest soon too to call their coffee a “cup of Josephus Daniels,” the man who took their booze away. As this was a mouthful, so it was soon shortened to a “cup of Joe” as the name saw wider use. Josephus Daniels may have wanted to be remembered by history as the man who cleaned up and restored moral virtue to the fleet, but the sailors themselves had the last word on his legacy.  He became the name for a black and bitter cup of coffee.

His ban on booze died after just six years as regulations loosened and enlisted clubs were formed that served alcohol. During WWII, it was widely available to sailors ashore and today Navy regulations allow a sailor at sea for more than 45 continuous days without a port call to drink two beers at what are known as “Steel Beach” picnics.

Soldiers of a tank destroyer battalion warm themselves with coffee before going into action against the Germans near Stolberg, Germany
Soldiers of a tank destroyer battalion warm themselves with coffee before going into action against the Germans near Stolberg, Germany. (U.S. Signal Corps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Java + Mocha

The problem with the whole I-hate-Josephus-so-I’m-naming-my-bitter-coffee-under-him idea was that the term “cup of Joe” was first mentioned in writing in 1930, 16 long years after alcohol was banned in the Navy. So there came a second guess, this time, related to linguistics: Joe is the simplified term for “jamoke,” which was the 19th-century nickname of coffee, a combination of the words “Java” and “mocha.” So the idea was that it was initially a “cup of jamoke” before it evolved to a “cup of Joe.”

I’m just your average…

Joe is also a slang term that refers to the common man on the street; thus, the phrase “He’s just an average Joe,” therefore connoting that coffee is a common man’s drink.
Although it’s hard to determine which of these three speculations were true, they’re still pretty interesting to know. What we know for sure is that coffee is now an everyday staple and that, according to some legend, we technically owe the discovery of it to the goats.

Which of these three theories do you think is the true story behind it? Or do you have your own theory? Share it with us!

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