I knew that Joe was used to mean the average man, and I discovered that joe is used to mean also coffee.

  • What is the origin of such meanings?
  • When it is used to mean the average man, should I understand that Joe is/was the most common name?
  • I've always assumed that "joe", in the coffee sense, is derived from "java".
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 8, 2017 at 19:19

6 Answers 6


Michael Quinion at World Wide Words claims that the use of joe for coffee first appeared in print in 1930. He agrees it's of unknown origin, but outlines two of the more prevalent theories before concluding it's most likely a military-slang modification of other j-words for coffee:

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”.

The earliest print reference I could find was from Eugene O'Brien's 1937 naval novel He Swung and He Missed:



My Webster's lists joe as

  1. coffee. [ORIGIN: 1940s: of unknown origin.]
  2. an ordinary man : the average joe. [ORIGIN: mid 19th cent.: nickname for the given name Joseph; compare with Joe Blow .]

Etymonline concurs.

  • It seems interesting that Webster says the origin is 1940, and dictionary.com (to which Etymonline has a link for joe) reports the origin is 1840-1850.
    – apaderno
    Feb 7, 2011 at 10:47
  • @kiamlaluno: Look more closely. Webster's and Etymonline agree that the coffee meaning is from the 1940s and the "ordinary man" sense is from the mid-19th century. What's your issue?
    – Robusto
    Feb 7, 2011 at 11:16
  • I don't have any issues at all. dictionary.com reports that the origin of joe to mean coffee is 1840-1850. As I thought I reached that page through a link on Etymonline (which is not what I did), I found interesting Etymonline would report a date, and have a link to a page that reports a different date. I didn't mean in any way to express a judgement about your answer. Still, I find interesting dictionary.com reports a different date.
    – apaderno
    Feb 7, 2011 at 12:29
  • Etymonline has a link to the Dictionary.com definition of joe. The link is show in Etymonline as an icon placed after the word joe. Etymonline says the origin is 1941, and it links to another site that reports 1840-1850 as origin of the same word.
    – apaderno
    Feb 22, 2011 at 12:50

Seemingly NOT from the Secretary of Navy: http://www.snopes.com/language/eponyms/cupofjoe.asp

My personal guess is java -> joe

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=joe "coffee," 1941, of unknown origin. Meaning "generic fellow, man" is from 1846, from the pet-form of Joseph (q.v.). Joe college "typical college man" is from 1932. Joe Blow "average fellow" is U.S. military slang, first recorded 1941.


'Joe' as a representative name for a typical person of a given type

Use of Joe in what J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of Historical Slang, volume 2 (1997) calls "nonce expressions denoting a man who personifies or represents the specified quality, identity, or association" go back more than a hundred years. Examples cited by Lighter include the following (with date of earliest citation in parentheses: Joe Average (1936), Joe Balls (1945), Joe Blow (1924), Joe Brooks (1925, alluding to Brooks Brothers clothiers), Joe Buttinsky (1912), Joe Citizen (1986), Joe College (1932), Joe Cool (1949), Joe Doakes (1926, where 'doak' means a rube or a boob), Joe the Grinder (1939, aka 'Jody Grinder'), Joe Hep (1902), Joe Latrinsky (1918), Joe Lunchpail (1965), Joe Public (1941, but much less common than John Q. Public), Joe Sad (1929), Joe Schmoe (1950), Joe Six-pack (1977), Joe Union (1936), Joe Zilch (1925). Lighter reports that G.I. Joe first appeared in print in 1935.

The practice is clearly quite old. For instance, I came across an eight-page penny pamphlet published in England in 1819 and titled "A Few More Words to My Neighbours, written by an anonymous author using the pseudonym Joe Shrewd.

'Joe' as slang for coffee

Lighter's earliest citation for joe as a slang synonym for coffee is from 1930 in a dictionary of tramp and underworld slang. Nevertheless, Lighter says that the expression is especially common in U.S. Navy slang. Here are Lighter's first three cited occurrences:

1930 Irwin, Tramp & Und[erworld] Sl[ang] 110: Joe.—Coffee. 1931 Erdman Reserve Officer's Manual 441: Jamoke, Java, Joe. Coffee. Derived from the words Java and Mocha, where originally the best coffee came from....Jilpot. Coffee pot. A corruption of "joe-pot." 1933 Leatherneck (Mar[ch]) 27: He observed that more is learned in a "jo" party than in any class instruction, so "coffee and" rank marksmanship problems after all.

Also of note is this citation from 1980, which seems rather far-fetched, but which Lighter suggests may be relevant, given the fact that "the Foster song was extremely popular":

1980 Mack & Connell Naval Trad[ition]s (ed. 5) 260: Some sailors call coffee "joe," which some say is a derivative of [Stephen] Foster's song, "Old Black Joe."

Godfrey Irwin, American Tramp and Underworld Slang (1930) provides the following full entry for joe:

JOE.—Coffee. Probably a contraction of "jamoke."

As for jamoke, the same book has this:

JAMOKE.—Coffee, and without a doubt from the two words indicating the sections of the world, Java and Mocha, from which much of the coffee comes.

On the other hand, according to Irwin, jamake (or simply jake) refers to "Jamaica ginger, used as a beverage and much favoured by the older tramp and more hardened drinker, but practically impossible for the average man to stomach."

The full name of the second source that Lighter cites is Robert Erdman, Reserve Officer's Manual: United States Navy. The 1932 edition of this book includes the quoted entries for "jamoke, java, joe" and "jilpot" in a section called "Naval Terms." Interestingly, although Erdman derives jilpot from joe-pot, Anthony Lawlor, Irish Maritime Survey: A Guide to the Irish Maritime World (1945) includes a listing for jilpot ("a seaman's term for the teapot or coffee pot") and jamoke ("a seaman's name for coffee. It is a corruption of the words Java and Mocha, places where it was once thought only good coffee could be obtained"), it doesn't mention joe.

Bolstering the notion that joe derives from jamoke is the fact that jamoke appears in print earlier than joe (in the sense of "coffee") does. From "Where Justice Sleeps," in the [Anamosa, Iowa] Reformatory Press (May 6, 1911):

During the morning, the marshal brought them some "red gut," "punk," and "jamoke." At least that was their language later on when describing their meal. Perhaps some of my readers understand this slang. I do not.

I haven't been able to identify what "red gut" referred to in 1911 reformatory slang, but "punk" referred to bread, and "jamoke" to coffee.

From The Lucky Bag (U.S. Naval Academy, 1924):

We got on speaking turns with swabs, squilgees, kiyis, buckets, slice bars, dogs, paintwork rags, salt water soap; we learned who said, "Coming through dirty" and "Let's swap backs"; we corroded our sides with "jamoke"; we became adept in in the art of washing from a bucket; we sought diligently for new and secure places to caulk and sometimes succeeded; we accustomed ourselves to canteen skags; we aired bedding and held quarters; we damned and blessed in the same breath,—but we learned.

From an advertisement for Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco in The Leatherneck, volume 13 (1930):

And how!! Don't blame old Slumburner for heaving you out when you smudge up his galley with a pipe that smells worse than a Shanghai alley. Break off being an eight-ball. Swab out that ripe crusted old briar, stoke 'er hold with Sir Walter and put yourself in right for good hot cup of Jamoke from the cook.

And from Les Voyageurs Annual, volume 21 (1930, University of Michigan) [combined snippets]:

A cup of excellent "jamoke"; the rich, golden, nut-brown smell of pipe smoke; the crackle of the fire; and then the good old sing, in which everybody joined. Outside the snow was piling up, and at twelve o'clock it was shoe-top deep.

However, there appears to have been a rival sense of jamoke in use Arizona during the early 1920s. From "Dug Their Way Out of Miami 'Hoosgow'," in the [Flagstaff, Arizona] Coconino Sun (January 16, 1920):

Two strange drunks were picked up in Miami, with their pockets stuffed with bay rum, the inspiration of their jag. They were locked up in the calaboose. The deputy failed to notice that a new concrete floor had been laid in the cell and that it was still soft. Sometime after his departure the prisoners dug the soft concrete out from under the door and crawled to liberty. They are likely on their way to Mexico by this time. The district is rid of two "jamoke" fiends and the taxpayers are winners to the amount of one trial and subsequent feeding of the prisoners.

From "Jamoke Ginger Not Intoxicant Unless Sold as Beverage" in the [Phoenix] Arizona Republican (November 25, 1920):

Jamoke Ginger Not Intoxicant Unless Sold as Beverage

BOSTON, Nov. 24.—Unless Jamaica ginger is sold as a beverage, it i not to be considered as intoxicating liquor, the full bench of the supreme court tody ruled in setting aside verdicts of guilty in the case of Sam Soakey and Michael J. Reagen, store keepers in Pittsfield.

Judge DeCourcey held that the sale of Jamaica ginger as a disguised substitute for liquor "is not so notorious that e can assume without proof that Jamaica ginger has the distinctive character, use and effect of an intoxicating liquor."

From "13 Faints Is Limit for Shocked Ones at Snake Ritual," in the [Prescott, Arizona] Weekly Journal-Miner (May 25, 1921):

Looking over the collection of snakes which have been attracted to the Owl Drug company window by the stock of "Jamoke" and perfume kept there for medicinal and society uses, Van Dickson confided to David H. Biles, of the Biles-Lockhart Clothing company that the exhibition to be held in the county seat was far enough west to have the real thing in snakes used in the performance, and he regretted having made an untimely end to a huge rattler with which he played a few days before tiring of the friendliness of the button-tailed monster.

These three instances suggest that jamoke referred to an alcoholic preparation similar to bay rum intended for external use and perhaps owing its name to a corruption of "Jamaica ginger." They also seem in line with the entry for jamake in Irwin's 1930 book of tramp and underworld slang.

With regard to the U.S. Navy connection to both jamoke and (supposedly) the Stephen Foster song "Old Black Joe," I note that Andrew Pendlton, The Silly Syclopedia: Containing "Daffynishuns" of the Words of the Slang Spoken by the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy (1908) reveals that then-current slang term for a black servant, especially on e working in the Naval Academy's mess hall, was moke:

MOKES—(From the Spanish Mozo meaning servant.) The sons of Ham with waiter's billets.

Elsewhere in the book, Pendleton offers this bit of doggerel:

M is for the Moke who you must implore/ And never order, as it makes him sore/ To bring you grub/ Aye there's the rub/ For invariably he says, "Tain' no more!"

Lighter finds instances of this offensive term for a black person from as far back as 1847, so if there were a connection between moke and jamoke, it would have moved from the pejorative term to the beverage (a similar path to the one claimed in the case of "old Black Joe" being shortened to joe).

Recent dictionaries do not agree on the origin of joe in the sense of coffee. Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) has this:

joe n {perh. alter. of java} COFFEE

but the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2010) has this:

joe n. Informal Brewed coffee. {Short for (old black) joe, military slang for coffee, from the title of a song by Stephen Foster.}

I would be more inclined to think that the AHDEL's etymological suggestion is plausible if I could find any instance of the term "old black joe" used for coffee in the decades before 1930. But after considerable searching in Google Books and the various Elephind newspaper databases, I couldn't find a single one. To my mind, the Java + mocha source of jamoke, followed by a shortening to joe, represents the simplest path consistent with the order in which jamoke and joe entered slang usage.


Some name must be chosen to fill the role. Tom, Dick and Harry lend a hand too, not to mention John Doe.

"Average Joe" is a phrase (limited in age by the prevalance of algebra education?) but can the term "Joe" be used alone in this sense at all?

  • In Joe Sixpack, the word average doesn't appear.
    – apaderno
    Feb 7, 2011 at 9:32
  • 1
    @Kiam: It is not used with "average," but neither is it used alone. It is an idiomatic phrase. Feb 7, 2011 at 18:07
  • No, because by itself it's just a name, it needs some sort of adjective or descriptor to signify it's being used in a more abstract sense.
    – Abernasty
    Jan 31, 2014 at 21:45

I believe Joe came from Spanish or Latin-American languages. The latest borrowed it from ancient Slavic word pronounced very similar both in Spanish and Slavic languages.

  • 3
    They are probably only concerned with modern English here, not about its derivation or Sanskrit roots. Feb 13, 2011 at 13:03
  • 1
    @PerformanceDBA, I infected you with non-DBMS and non-6NF areas? Feb 15, 2011 at 16:43
  • More "activated" a latent interest, rather than "infected" which is introducing something that was not there. Generally, yes. Feb 17, 2011 at 7:24
  • @GennadyVaninNovosibirsk - Are you trolling with this answer? The OP asks why coffee is "joe", and you explain that it comes from the rudest word for "penis"? Tell me you're not serious.
    – MT_Head
    Feb 28, 2014 at 4:57

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