The Real McCoy

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The Real McCoy : Phrases


The real thing - not a substitute.



The Real McCoy (or 'real mackay', 'real macoy', 'real mackoy'...) rivals 'the whole nine yards', 'okay' and 'the full monty' for pre-eminence in the 'I can explain that phrase' stakes. As usual, plausibility and frequent retelling are considered enough for absolute certainty. With that in mind, please read on...

There are several people and things that the phrase has been applied to - which came first is uncertain.

McCoy is derived from Mackay, referring to Messrs. Mackay, Edinburgh, who made a brand of fine whisky from 1856 onwards and which that they promoted as 'the real MacKay' from 1870.

This could have been derived from the branch of the MacKay family from Reay, Scotland, i.e. 'the Reay Mackay'.

After Kid McCoy (Norman Selby,1873-1940), American welterweight boxing champion.

The story goes, and there are various versions of it, that a drunk challenged Selby to prove that he was McCoy and not one of the many lesser boxers trading under the same name. After being knocked to the floor the drunk rose to admit that 'Yes, that's the real McCoy'.

Elijah McCoy, the Canadian inventor educated in Scotland, made a successful machine for lubricating engines which spawned many copies, all inferior to the original. He patented the design in 1872.

The feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families, of West Virginia and Kentucky respectively, in the 1880s.

The phrase originates with a dispute between two branches of the Scots Mackay clan over who was their rightful leader. The head of one branch was Lord Reay, who came to be known as the Reay Mackay which migrated to 'the real McCoy'.

Joseph McCoy (1837-1915), became mayor of Abilene, Kansas as it developed into a sizeable town. He called himself 'the real McCoy'.

Bill McCoy was a US rumrunner during the prohibition years and his 'real' rum, imported from Canada, was compared favourably with poor quality local brews.

McCoy was a Pennsylvanian who supplied commercial nitro-glycerine to safecrackers who favoured it over their own homemade efforts.

McCoy is a corruption of Macao which was the source of a pure and sought-after class of heroin.

The list goes on and there are several other versions going the rounds but they carry little conviction.

Given that there's no hard evidence the favourite has the be the earliest reference. That's a close call, as many of the sources date back to the second half of the 19th century. The earliest printed citation is from 1856, in Deil's Hallowe'en:

"A drappie o' the real McKay."

This clearly refers to the McKay (or Mackay) whisky.

The 'Real McCoy' comes later, and appears to be of US origin. Whether this translated from MacKay to McCoy as it travelled from Scotland to the US, as Elijah McCoy did himself, or whether it originated there independently, we can't be sure.

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