Know It All: Why is Coffee Called “Joe”?

Pour yourself a cup and dive into some beverage knowledge.

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

Why is Coffee Called “Joe”?

All staples of popular culture eventually earn nicknames of some sort. Sometimes it’s just an acronym or a shortened form of a longer name (Kentucky Fried Chicken becoming KFC, Coca-Cola becoming Coke, Macintosh becoming Mac) and sometimes it’s just a moniker with some sort of under-the-radar origin story, like The Academy Awards becoming known as “The Oscars”. As you may have noticed, the word “joe” does not exist within the word “coffee” in any way and thus, the universally used phrase “a cup of joe” firmly falls into the latter category of nicknames – its backstory is not immediately clear.

Regrettably – though history has given us a pretty good idea as to when the term “joe” became synonymous with “coffee” (around 1930) – there isn’t much solid information regarding WHY this etymological wrinkle evolved. Like always, though… the world has produced a few potentially legitimate explanations.

The first idea posits that because the name “Joe” is so often used as a default name substitute or nondescript signifier (see: Joe Blow, Joe College, GI Joe, and “the average Joe”) and because coffee has long since been a staple of the common man’s liquid menu… “a cup of Joe” is literally a cup of liquid for the everyman.

The other theory behind “joe” maintains that the term is actually an abbreviated version of the already-abbreviated word “jamoke”, a word combining the names of two coffee hot spots (Java and Mocha).

Unfortunately, we have no way to confirm or deny either belief. Oh well. Maybe some more caffeine will help.

Now you know.

Justin Brown

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook