real McCoy, the

This term meaning the genuine article derives from a brand of whisky. The phrase the real MacKay, referring to a brand of whisky of that name, appears in 1856. It was officially adopted as an advertising slogan by G.Mackay and Co. of Edinburgh in 1870. When it crossed the Atlantic the spelling shifted to become McCoy. From the poem Deil’s Hallowe’en, published in 1856:

A drappie o’ the real McKay.

And there is this from the 1880 Clydesdale Readings:

A thumblefu’ o’ the “rale Mackay” to mak’ a’ richt.

The known use that is not in reference to the whisky is in an 1883 letter by Robert Louis Stevenson:

For society, there isnae sae muckle; but there’s myself—the auld Johnstone, ye ken—he’s the real Mackay, whatever.

The phrase crossed the Atlantic in the opening years of the 20th century, but the association with liquor is retained in the earliest American citations of the phrase. Here is a variation on the phrase in W.G. Davenport’s 1908 Butte & Montana:

I took a good-sized snort out of that big bottle in the middle and I declare I thought I was going to throw up my guts during the first hymn. Have you none of the clear McCoy handy around the house?

On 13 January 1915, T.A. Dorgan used the term in a more general fashion in the San Francisco Call & Post:

Gee whiz, Dick—you look great—goin’ to a blowout? I heard the boss say that you dolled up and looked like the real McCoy—well, a fellow with a nice shape like you couldn’t help but look great.

The phrase is often falsely attached to a couple of famous men named McCoy. While neither is the origin of the phrase, either or both may have influenced the shift in spelling to McCoy.

The first of these is Norman “Kid McCoy” Selby (1873-1940), an American champion boxer who was convicted of murder in 1924. It is claimed that the headline “Now You’ve Seen the Real McCoy” in the 25 May 1899 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, but this cannot be verified and the edition of the paper preserved on microfilm does not contain this headline. If another edition of the paper did use the phrase, it would be the first known American usage, but as the phrase was well-established in Britain long before Selby became famous it is clear that he is not the inspiration. Such headlines or references to the boxer would be allusions to the existing phrase, not new coinages. (The Selby legend is dealt with in more detail in Word Myths.)

Alternatively, it is often suggested that the term derives from Elijah McCoy (1843-1929), an inventor of a type of hydrostatic lubricators in 1872. Again, this is not early enough to account for the existing citations, and the early uses in reference to whisky make it clear that the phrase did not originally refer to either man.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Scottish National Dictionary)

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