Why Do They Call it ‘Joe’?

Who the Fu** is Joe (… and what is he doing in my mug)?

The East Coast Gross spends many hours daily pondering gaps in his knowledge. His quests to uncover the random facts that make up interesting conversation take him on journeys. He wonders where Algeria is, and whether it is embarrassing that he doesn’t already know? He wonders why the percentage of red haired professional hockey players is so high, when he only sees one ginger a week?

Today, while enjoying the ritual cup of coffee, he wondered something that probably all of us have thought at one point, “Why is a cup of coffee called a cup of Joe?”

Typically these types of inquires are easily handled by a tidy trip to urbandictionary.com or “Yahoo! answers”. However, this time, with my pre-work hour quickly dissolving into Google searches, I was disappointed to find varying opinions on my seemingly simple question.

– The first answer I found was related to another nickname for coffee: java. A nameless amateur blog supposed that coffee is called ‘Joe’ because ‘Joe’ simply sounds like ‘Java’. This theory can be immediately dismissed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that “Java” doesn’t sound like “Joe” at all, except for both words beginning with the letter “J”.

– Another theory found on Answers.com says: In 1860 a popular song of the times was “Old Black Joe” written by Stephen C. Foster the same man who wrote “Camp Town Races” and “Oh! Suzanna”.

Of course you can imagine the racial implications of this explanation. I conceive the genesis went something like this: in the late 1800s a group of white slave owners enjoyed coffee with their breakfast (while counting their money recently accumulated from cotton or tobacco trade). They joked about George Washington’s wig being too powdered, and nicknamed their perfectly dark beverage after their long time African slave, Joe.

"Hey Joe, where you goin' with that mug in your hand?"

However plausible this solution may seem, the song’s lyrics yield absolutely no mention of a morning breakfast beverage, or any beverage whatsoever. Lyrics here.

– The answer that appears most often and is certainly plausible is the following, as reported from answerbag.com. “Josephus Daniels (1862-1948) was appointed Secretary of the U.S. Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his numerous reforms of the Navy was the abolition of the officers wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard navy ships was coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as “a cup of Joe”.”

As the debate races on, and I begin to care less and less about the phrase’s etymology, I instead wonder why I cared in the first place (and why do you care?). Why would I forgo breakfast to spend my morning researching a semi-useless fact. Perhaps…

  • I’m a spoiled child, whose flexible work schedule allows me to mull around the house in the morning instead hustling to my desk
  • I want to learn these types of things to expand my utility in conversation. “You know why they call it Joe?” is a solid conversation starter… I think (as long as the other person is actually drinking coffee, otherwise – weird).
  • There is an arrogance related to my quest for knowledge. I want to “know” more just for the sake of knowing more than you. In essence it makes me feel smart and superior to someone who doesn’t know what I do. I feel like I’m in a special club of smart people who know everything, aka “Jeopardy” contestants.

However, I mostly want to believe that my quest to fill gaps in knowledge is related to the fact that…

Learning is an important part of living, in that it allows us to become more whole as individuals. Knowledge illuminates our world and makes life more vibrant and fulfilling. Knowing more about a particular topic, place or phrase takes the mundane and turns it into a dynamic experience. It is the history behind the events in our daily routines events that makes them more than monotonous ritual.

Having said that, I will continue to Google until I feel confident in a supposed answer to the above question, and I hope you will too. For tomorrow, when I pour my morning “Cup of Joe”, I will enjoy it just a bit more knowing that my morning ritual is related to hundreds of years of history. I will feel connected… and I am willing to bet that tomorrow morning’s brew will be especially delicious.

Peace and Love,
East Coast Gross

East Coast Gross can be reached at ECG@GDPmagazine.com

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