Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

The Real McCoy

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 13, 2011

Interestingly enough, the expression the real McCoy has a long and colourful history, most of which is pure fabrication but delightful nonetheless.  And through the twists and turns found within those spirited stories, the fact of the matter is that the expression means that someone or something is genuine. 

There have been claims that the expression refers to a brand of whiskey distilled in Scotland by G. Mackay & Co. Ltd. since 1856.  Mackay’s distilled spirit was oftentimes referred to as the clear Mackay and by the time Prohibition hit, it was referred to in American speak-easies as the real Mackay as opposed to a knock-off passing for Mackay’s elixir.

There have been claims that the expression came about after oil-drip cup was patented in 1872 by Canadian inventor, Elijah McCoy (1843 – 1929).  His invention revolutionized the industry by 1873 as it allowed locomotive engines to run longer, more smoothly and more efficiently.  It succeeded in doing this by allowing metal joints to be oiled automatically while in use. A decade later in 1882, railroad engineers who didn’t want to deal with inferior copies of Elijah McCoy’s oil-drip cup would routinely ask if the locomotive they were to drive was fitted with “the real McCoy system.” 

A very popular version is that the expression refers to the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys of West Virginia and Kentucky back in the 1880s.  And yet another version claims that it was an incident where American welterweight boxing champion, Norman “Kid McCoy” Selby (1873 – 1940) knocked an unbelieving drunk out cold in an argument in a bar which prompted the drunk to exclaim when he became conscious, “You’re right! He’s the real McCoy!

Back on December 31, 2008 the AFP European and Global edition newspapers published a story about then 31-year-old former world boxing champion, Scott Harrison.  The news story was entitled, “Ex-World Champ Harrison Released From Jail.”  In the news story, it was reported:

Harrison, nicknamed The Real McCoy, has won 25 of his 29 professional fights, including 14 by knock-out.  However, he has not fought for three years and his licence  has since been revoked by the British Boxing Board of Control.

The expression, the real McCoy, however, was around long before Scott Harrison was even born.  Going back more than a century, on October 17, 1891 the New Zealand Observer and Free Lance newspaper reported this little tidbit in the “Round The Churches” column.

The real McCoy and the musical Plant held a meeting at Otahuhu last week, and meet with a liberal supply of eggs.  The subject he volcanoed upon was “Trap doors to hell” and judging by the smell of the dead chickens, a plentiful supply of sulphur would have been a pleasant change.

Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have written a letter in 1883 that stated, “He’s the real Mackay.”

However,on March 14, 1879,  the Sarnia Observer newspaper published in Sarnia, Ontario (Canada) carried a lengthy news article about the Election of Officers and annual dance of the Sarnia Fire Department.  Once business had been tended to, the meeting was adjourned to Ellison’s Hotel where members and their spouses partook of the annual supper provided by the officers of the Fire Department.

Mr. Wm. Stewart also referred to his former relations with the department and to the pleasing associations with which they were connected.  Mr. Wm. Eveland sang, “The Real McCoy” in capital style.

The celebrations continued with many songs being sung and many toasts being made.  Among other songs sung was a rousing rendition of “Muldoon the Solid Man” by the Chairman and the comic song “The Mer-mi-aid” sung by Mr. Ellis. The pres was also recognized as the Vice-Chairman proposed a toast to “the press” in what was reported as a brief complimentary speech.  It was responded to by the representatives of The Observer and The Canadian newspapers.

That the song “The Real McCoy” was sung at this gathering and was recognized not only by the Fire Department and their spouses but by the press as well indicates that the song was well-known.  Since songs didn’t become well-known overnight as they did in the 20th century and do in the 21st century, it’s reasonable to believe that this song was in existence at least a decade — if not longer — prior to the event in 1879.

Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to track the song down — which would be in the public domain at this point — and is therefore unable to provide an exact date of publication for the song.

In the Marlborough Express newspaper in New Zealand, the newspaper carried an advertisement in the March 6, 1875 edition that read in part:

Important Notice
Great Clearing Sale of
Winter Stock of Boots and Shoes
To Make Room For Spring And Summer Goods
Daily Expected From England

Halfway down the advertisement, the following is found:

All kinds of books, periodicals and musical instruments procured at a considerable percentage below Blenheim prices to give every one a change to enjoy the same king of luxury that I enjoy myself.  Cut Tobacco — the real McKay — and other brands never introduced into Blenheim before.

It’s quite possible that the expression “the real Mackay” is from Scotland while the expression “the real McCoy” is from Canada, both appearing at about the same time.

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