java / joe

These are a couple of slang terms for coffee. Java is the older of the two and the one with a known etymology. It is a reference to the island of Java in Indonesia, a place where coffee is grown. The term appears as early as 1823 in the pages of the Christian Spectator of 1 February of that year:

The most remarkable general characteristic of these works is their common relation to the Waverly Novels—a relation very much the same with that which ‘Roger’s Columbian Coffee’ bears to the real Java.

Originally java referred specifically to coffee that came from that island, but over time the meaning generalized to mean any good coffee. From The New Mirror, 27 May 1843:

It is customary in many parts of the country to have the best Java for dinner, in honor of a visiter [sic], and is considered the highest evidence of a welcome.

The term joe, on the other hand, is of uncertain origin and is much more recent. It is not attested to until 1930, when it is glossed in Godfrey Irwin’s American Tramp and Underworld Slang.

Early attestations are particularly common from U.S. Navy sources. From Lt. Robert Erdman’s 1931 Reserve Officer’s Manual:

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.”

The best guess as to the origin is that joe is simply a clipping of java.

US Naval folklore has it that the term is from the name of Josephus Daniels, who was secretary of the navy under Woodrow Wilson. Daniels abolished the officers’ wine mess and US Navy ships after that were completely dry (the sailors’ rum ration had been abolished decades before). Supposedly, US Naval officers started calling their coffee joe because it was the strongest thing that Joe Daniels let them drink on board. While a neat tale, there is no real evidence to support it.

Another tale is that it is from the Stephen Foster tune Old Black Joe, which was a popular song in the 1880s. But again there is no real evidence and the connection to coffee is mysterious. The song is not about coffee, but rather about an old ex-slave named Joe.

(Sources: Proquest Historical Newspapers; Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

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