“Would you like to have a brew?” “Care for a cup of Joe?” “I could really use a cup of java right now.” These are all phrases that you may have heard at some point in your life.
But have you ever thought about where they come from? Who decided to call a cup of coffee “java,” or any of these terms, which seem weirder the more you think about them?
Read on to find out why people started referring to coffee as “java,” and all these other colloquial terms.
Why is Coffee Called Java?
But if you look up the meaning of the word on Google, the first result would define java as an informal term for coffee.
Most of the time, a cup of coffee is referred to by the method of brewing, such as drip or espresso. Other times, it can be the type of coffee beverage, such as the latte or the lesser-known cortado.
However, java isn’t the name of any specific brewing method, coffee beverage, or even the name of any particular coffee beans. So, where does this term come from?
Origin of the Phrase
The use of java as an informal term for coffee can be traced back to the 1600s in Indonesia. Yes, it has everything to do with the history of coffee beans.
During this era, many areas around the globe had been colonized by the Dutch, including significant territories in Southeast Asia. They had a complete monopoly on trade across this region.
A small Island known as Java was also a part of this region. It was located between the now-famous Island of Bali and the not-so-famous Island of Sumatra.
Arabica coffee, which was gaining sudden popularity around the world during that period, was brought to these Indonesian Islands by the Dutch East India Company.
Soon, people of this region started to develop a liking for this warm beverage, just like the rest of the world. In fact, coffee became so popular that people started making attempts to grow their own beans.
Due to reasons that likely have something to do with the soil and the climatic atmosphere, the people of the Island of Java were able to grow coffee beans. In fact, the resulting product was export-grade coffee.
Soon enough, the people of this island started taking advantage of the widespread popularity of coffee and began exporting coffee beans to other cities and regions.
This endeavor became successful, and the coffee beans gained immense popularity as exports for the Dutch colonists. As a result, they improved the infrastructure of the island to make commuting easier.
It should also be noted that most of this export was a result of forced labor. The Dutch colonists exploited the islanders as well as the land of Java for commercial and agricultural production.
Unfortunately, back in those days, slavery and forced labor weren’t yet considered to be morally wrong. Hence, the island became one of the major producers of coffee in a short period of time.
There isn’t a clear record of the first use of “java” in reference to coffee, but it can be safely assumed that it had something to do with the Island of Java.
The most widely accepted theory is that when the coffee beans from this region were introduced to other areas, the word “java” became associated with the coffee beans in trading negotiations.
Even today, Indonesia is the fourth-largest producer of coffee in the world, after Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia.
However, instead of exploiting the poor, Java has now become home to an elite class of people. The working-class inhabitants of the island practice coffee farming.
Cup of Joe
This is arguably the most common colloquial term used for coffee. In fact, most people wouldn’t think about it twice if they heard it in a conversation or even read it in the morning newspaper.
But if you actually take a moment to think about the phrase, you will realize that it doesn’t actually make much sense. Who on earth decided that a cup of Joe meant coffee?
Similar to java, there isn’t an exact record of the first use of “a cup of Joe.” However, with the latter phase, there isn’t even a safe assumption about how it came into being.
There are, however, three strong theories about its origin. Let’s take a look at all of these theories.
Theory 1: The Navy Secretary
The first theory around the phrase took birth on a naval ship due to the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels. Yes, when you refer to your coffee as a “cup of Joe,” you could actually be mentioning a real man.
This theory suggests that the Navy Secretary issued General Order 99 in 1913. General Order 99 prohibited the consumption of alcohol onboard.
Hence, the strongest beverage for the Navy sailors was coffee. As you can expect, this didn’t go very well with a bunch of people who were stuck at sea for weeks on end without any alcohol.
Since the Navy sailors couldn’t do anything to refute the new rule, they started referring to their coffee as a “cup of Joe” to annoy their secretary.
While this makes for an interesting dinner-table story, most historians have contradicting views about the legitimacy of this theory. A large number agree that this may not be the true origin of the phrase.
Yet, there are some who believe that the story does sound convincing. Either way, it makes for an interesting topic to discuss when you’re running out of things to talk about on your next coffee date.
Theory 2: Combinations of Words
Another proposed origin of this phrase is that it came into existence due to other colloquial terms for coffee being combined together.
Some English language researchers believe it started with the combination of “Java” and “Mocha,” which resulted in the word “Jamoke.” Or “Cup of Jamoke.”
As you can tell, the phrase wasn’t exactly easy on the tongue. Hence, it wasn’t suitable for an everyday beverage.
As a result, “Cup of Jamoke” was shortened to just “Cup of Joe” somewhere down the line.
This sounds a bit more plausible than the previous theory. However, at the end of the day, the legitimacy of this theory is as debated as the Navy Secretary theory.
Theory 3: The Common Man
The third theory surrounding the phrase may be the most plausible one. Similar to the first one, this theory believes that it comes from the name “Joe.”
However, unlike Josephus Daniels, who was a somewhat important person, this theory refers to Joe as the everyday common man.
In slang terms, the name Joe is often used to describe “the common man.” Does “Average Joe” ring a bell?
The slang isn’t a recent development either. The first recorded use of the name in reference to a common man dates all the way back to 1846.
Coincidentally, this was around the same time when coffee had already traveled all across the globe and was gaining worldwide recognition and popularity.
Since coffee was a relatively cheap drink, it could be enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Hence, a “Cup of Joe” could realistically have been derived from the “common man’s drink.”
Of the three theories surrounding the phrase, this one seems to be the most plausible.
Other Colloquial Terms for Coffee
Despite being the most common terms, Java and Cup of Joe are far from being the only nicknames used for the country’s most popular hot beverage.
Let’s take a look at some other colloquial terms used for coffee.
- Brain Juice
- Morning Brew
- Morning Jolt
- Caffeine Infusion
- Rocket Fuel (generally used for strong coffee)
- Bean Juice
- Daily Grind
- Cafe Noir
- High Octane
- Liquid Energy
- Cuppa (though more commonly used for tea, it can sometimes be used in reference to coffee)
- Worm Dirt
- Flat White
- Red Eye
No matter what you choose to call your coffee, the beverage will remain the same.
But if you’re feeling fancy the next time you’re posting a picture with coffee on Instagram, you can certainly use one of these terms to make your caption more interesting.