Josephus Daniels, former secretary of the US Navy may have been the namesake of the proverbial cup of joe.
Joe is, of course, short for Joseph. And in American English, “joe” can refer to an average guy, a soldier, or—somewhat strangely—coffee.
As it turns out, the use of joe as slang for coffee dates to the World War I era. It was then that Daniels, who started his career as a newspaper publisher in North Carolina, became secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson.
As recounted in a recent biography, Daniels tried to imbue the navy with a strict morality. He increased the number of chaplains, discouraged prostitution at naval bases, and, most controversially, banned the consumption of alcohol.
His General Order 99 that prohibited alcohol aboard such vessels was issued on 1 June 1914.
“As a substitute, stewards increased their purchases of coffee, among other beverages,” writes Lee Craig in the new book, “and Daniels’s name became linked to the daily drink of millions around the world. A cup of coffee became disparagingly known as ‘a cup of Joseph Daniels,’ and as legend has it, this was soon shortened to a ‘cup of Joe.’”
American Armies seem to run on coffee since the Civil War.
Union soldiers were given 36 pounds of coffee a year by the government, which they combined with water from canteens and puddles, brackish bays and Mississippi mud.
The word coffee was more common in civil war diaries than the words “war,” “bullet,” “cannon,” “slavery,” “mother” or even “Lincoln.”
However, prior to 1914, the U.S. Navy had not been sodden with rum.
Historians believe that “cup of joe” didn’t first enter the English language until about 1930.
Linguists believe it came into being at that time as a corruption of another nickname common at that time: jamoke.
Jamoke was itself a combination of nicknames java and mocha. Experts believe that, over time, jamoke may have transformed into joe, since it’s natural for slang terms to shorten over the years.
Jamoke morphing into joe is the strongest contender for “cup of joe” thanks to this find by linguist Michael Quinion:
“It is significant that an early example appears in 1931 in the Reserve Officer’s Manual by a man named Erdman: ‘Jamoke, Java, Joe. Coffee. Derived from the words Java and Mocha, where originally the best coffee came from.’”
Yet another theory holds that coffee came to be known as joe because joe itself is a slang term for a common fellow, guy, or chap. In other words, coffee became a cup of joe because it was considered the common man’s drink.
Cup of George?
US soldiers in World War I (1914-1918) referred to a serving of instant coffee made by the G. Washington Coffee Refining Company as a “cup of George”. The common abbreviation of the name “George” (“Geo.”) was then read as “Joe”.
As a dominant producer at that time, the G. Washington Coffee Refining Company proudly advertised its contribution to the war effort, “G. Washington’s Refined Coffee has gone to WAR.”
As the prime attraction was the caffeine boost, rather than the flavor, it was sometimes drunk cold.
|“||I am very happy despite the rats, the rain, the mud, the draughts [sic], the roar of the cannon and the scream of shells. It takes only a minute to light my little oil heater and make some George Washington Coffee … Every night I offer up a special petition to the health and well-being of Mr. Washington.||”|
|— American soldier, 1918 letter from the trenches|
Cup of George, anyone?
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.