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Op-Ed: Which one is the Real McKoy?

By Kyle Pallanik     Aug 11, 2007 in World
With an idiom like 'The Real McKoy' meaning 'The Real Thing' or 'The Genuine Article' it seems to be a little curious that the origin of the phrase itself is also debatable. Delve into obscurity with me and let's find out more about The Real McKoy.
Some time ago I was reading an article that described the life of Afro-Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy (1844 -1929), who patented a lubricating cup invention that allowed steam engine locomotives to receive oil without having to stop for maintenance. The invention was successful and used in steam engine powered factories as well.
Later, as the size and power of locomotives grew, it became necessary to mix the oil with graphite, to withstand the superheated temperatures. In April of 1915 Elijah McCoy received a patent for an improved lubricator that he claimed in his application would permit the use of graphite "without danger of clogging."
Robert C. Hayden, quoted in his book Eight Black American Inventors a letter from a railroad superintendent that said:
"We have found the McCoy Graphite Lubricator to be of considerable assistance in lubrication of locomotives equipped with super heaters.... There is a decided advantage in better lubrication and reduction of wear in valves and piston rings, and as a well lubricated engine is more economical in the use of fuel, there is unquestionably a saving in fuel."
In the years after, Elijah's invention was often demanded by railroad purchasing agents who asked if the device was 'The Real McCoy' and not one of the numerous imitations of the successful lubricator.
Thinking that this was a good topic for an editorial on the origin of the phrase, I thought that it would be fun to write about this black engineer who never really saw the millions of dollars that his inventions made, because he couldn't afford to mass produce them on his own and ended up selling his patents.
However, when it came time to do research, it quickly became apparent that there is some debate out there on the origin of 'The Real McCoy' not everyone sees Elijah McCoy's lubricator as the source of the expression.
Some have said that the expression comes from the McCoy family who was famous for their family feud with the Hatfield family across the border of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, but even though this happened during the late 19th century, the reasoning seems vague and unlikely.
Hatfield-McCoy Trail
Hatfield-McCoy Trail
British-American journalist Alistair Cooke wrote about the origins of the term in his book America and argues that Joseph McCoy (1837 - 1915) the cattle baron earned the name because of his reputation for reliability. A reference in the Wikipedia article on this particular McCoy links to an Iowa State Animal Science Archive saying that:
McCoy bragged before leaving Chicago that he would bring 200,000 head in 10 years and actually brought two million head in 4 years, leading to the phrase "It's the Real McCoy"
While this seems likely, because of how long ago he lived, there doesn't appear to be any other cattle driver that tried to copy Joe McCoy, so the true meaning of the expression doesn't seem to fit.
A Texas Longhorn
A Texas Longhorn
Another McCoy who's name became synonymous with the expression is the prohibition period rum runner William S. McCoy who apparently never watered down his booze, therefore owing to the expression that his stuff was 'The Real McCoy'. There was even a book about him that used the term in its title. However compared to the previous 19th century examples, the prohibition era was much later in history and therefore the term would probably already have been around by that time.
A World Wide Words article on the topic cites the possibility that the term originated from a reference to pure heroin from Macao, but this seems to be more far fetched than the theories that we've heard so far, even more so than the possibility that the source comes from McCoy Pottery, who's products were often imitated and had been involved in trademark disputes.
Another popular historical personality is welterweight champion boxer Kid McCoy
also known as Shelton Selby. He was a champion from 1898-1900 so perhaps its early enough in the time period, but he seems to have made up everything from his nickname to his cunning boxing style, so its likely that term could have been popularized by him, but it was probably coined before he was born. However Michael Quinion points out in his worldwidewords article that Kid McCoy had many imitators who used his name in small town boxing bouts across the country and eventually he billed himself as 'Kid "The Real" McCoy'. Quinion also points out that there is no evidence of the imitators or the story that a drunk doubted Kid McCoy's boxing talents and provoked him into to proving that he really was by punching him, showing him that he was the real thing.
Kid McCoy
Kid McCoy
Now we finally come to the one of the oldest possibilities which points to a Scottish expression, and seems to have the most evidence available.
The earliest is a Scottish National Dictionary reference from 1856, which records the phrase "A drappie (drop) o' the real MacKay", obviously referring to scotch whisky. The same dictionary and other sources also state that the slogan was used by Messrs G Mackay and Co. on their whisky as early as 1870.
Wordorigins.org cites the same version of the phrase in an 1856 poem Deil’s Hallowe’en.
According to both sources, a Robert Louis Stevenson letter from 1883 used the same expression, but not in reference to Whisky:
For society, there isnae sae muckle; but there’s myself—the auld Johnstone, ye ken—he’s the real Mackay, whatever.
Quinion says that this same letter was published in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Interestingly enough, going back to our Rum Runner William S. McCoy, a definition for 'McCoy' found at Dictionary.com mentions the alcoholic reference and indicates that it was also used to describe any hard liquor smuggled in from Canada.
Mackay of Edinburgh, who made a brand of fine Scotch whisky that they promoted as "the real Mackay" from 1870 onward. During the Prohibition era in the United States (1919-1933), the phrase was extended to any hard liquor from Canada as opposed to lesser domestic brands. Since "the real Mackay" was already in the language, a widening of the phrase's scope in the alcoholic spectrum makes sense.
Quinion also brings up some other literary examples, notably 'A Rock in the Baltic', by Robert Barr, dated 1906 also seems to indicate a Scottish origin:
“I shouldn’t have taken the liberty of introducing him to you as Prince Lermontoff if he were not, as we say in Scotland, a real Mackay — the genuine article”.
And finally An Outback Marriage, a book published in the same year by Australian Andrew “Banjo” Paterson also uses the same variation on the phrase:
“‘We brought a drop o’ rum,’ replied Charlie. ‘Ha! That’ll do. That’s the real Mackay,’ said the veteran, slouching along at a perceptibly quicker gait”.
So now that the evidence has been presented, which etymology do you think is The Real McCoy? Did it come from Scotland and change when it came overseas, to be popularized by the boxer Kid McCoy, or the inventions of Elijah McCoy (Who actually studied engineering in Scotland) or the booze smuggling of prohibition? Even people on the snopes message board seem to be wondering...
More about Real mckoy, Elijah mccoy, Whiskey
 
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