June 6, 2001
Alissa Elliott wrote:
My parents recently purchased an antique vase that bears the logo of "McCoy." They were delighted with their find, claiming that McCoy vases were so popular that they are the origin of the phrase the real McCoy. Is there any truth to this?
Lawrence de Robillard also asked about this phrase.
The origin of the real McCoy is obscure, and there are many theories, but I didn't find any mention of McCoy vases. The Nelson McCoy Pottery in Ohio wasn't founded until 1910, and the phrase is older than that, so there is probably no connection.
According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the earliest print citation that might be related to the phrase is from 1856: "A drappie o'the real McKay," referring to genuine, unadulterated Scotch whiskey. There was supposedly a distiller named Mackay who adopted this as his slogan.
The earliest citation in the OED is from an 1883 letter written by Robert Louis Stevenson: "For society, there isnae sae muckle; but there's myself--the auld Jonstone, ye ken--he's the real Mackay, whatever." At least in Scotland, the phrase was established by the 1880s.
It appears that the earliest citation with the spelling "McCoy" referring to whiskey is from 1908. This is from the Dictionary of Americanisms: "I took a good-size snort out of that big bottle [of furniture polish] in the middle....Have you none of the clear McCoy handy around the house? (Davenport, Butte Beneath X-Ray).
So how did we get from McKay to McCoy? The usual explanation mentions a U.S. welterweight champion, popular between 1896 and 1916, who was known as "Kid McCoy." The story, told by Paul Robert Beath, writing in American Speech in 1932, and by H.L. Mencken, is that a drunk once picked a fight with McCoy and refused to believe that his opponent was actually the great boxer. After picking himself up off the floor, the drunk supposedly said to a bystander, "It's the real McCoy." While we don't necessarily have to accept this tale, it's certainly possible that McCoy's fame contributed to the popularity of the expression.
It might be that the phrase originated with McKay whiskey in Scotland, was exported to the U.S. with the whiskey, and was popularized in this country through the similarity of the name to that of Kid McCoy.
Thomas Pyles, writing in American Speech in 1958, believes the phrase originated in Britain and mentions another possible theory. In the 17th century, the northern group of the clan Mackay was headed by a Lord Reay; Pyles suggests that "the Reay Mackay" may have designated the leader of the northern clansmen and have come to mean 'the genuine article'. "Reay" then became "real." I find that a bit far-fetched. And we still have to get to the McCoy spelling.
The Dictionary of Americanisms has a citation from an 1946 article in the New Orleans Picayune: "'The real McCoy'....originally was applied to heroin brought in from the island of Macao off the coast of China.... Dope addicts found out the stuff...was the real Macao."
A 1936 quotation from the Chicago Daily News is also cited in the Dictionary of Americanisms: "A reader...has sent us a bit from a ballad, current sixty years ago in Ireland, in which an irate wife proclaims herself the head of the household with the assertion, 'I'm the real McCoy.'"
There are also those who relate the phrase to a man named Bill McCoy who was a notorious rum-runner during Prohibition.
There is, unfortunately, no firm evidence for any of these theories. Take your pick.
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