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The meaning and origin of the expression: The Real McCoy

The Real McCoy

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'The Real McCoy'?

The real thing - not a substitute.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The Real McCoy'?

The Real McHoyThe Scottish racing cyclist Sir Chris Hoy won the sixth Olympic gold medal of his career at the London Games on 7th August 2012, making him the most successful British Olympian and elevating him even higher in the sporting firmament in the UK than he was before. This is far from the first time that Hoy has made news here and the red-top newspapers strained themselves to come up with new headlines - 'Medals Ahoy', 'Hoy Joy', 'Six Machine', 'The Hoy Wonder', 'Knight Rider', and so on. They couldn't do better than the line on the banner that his proud parents unfurl each time he wins - 'The Real McHoy'. This is of course a paraphrase of the expression 'the real McCoy' (or 'real mackay', 'real macoy', 'real mackoy'...), which rivals 'the whole nine yards' and 'the full Monty' for pre-eminence in the 'I know where that phrase comes from' stakes. As usual, plausibility and frequent retelling are considered enough for absolute certainty. With that in mind, please read on...

There are several sources that are suggested as being the origin of 'the real McCoy', for example:

  • McCoy is derived from Mackay, referring to Messrs. Mackay, Edinburgh, who made a brand of fine whisky from 1856 onwards that they promoted as 'the real MacKay' from 1870. The expression could have derived from the name of the branch of the MacKay family from Reay, Scotland, that is, 'the Reay Mackay'.
  • After Kid McCoy (Norman Selby, 1872-1940), 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 that 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 list goes on to include several other versions but none is supported by any evidence and they carry little credibility. Given that there's no hard evidence, the favourite has to be the earliest example to be found in print. That's a close call, as many of the sources date back to the second half of the 19th century. The earliest known printed citation is from 1856, in the Scottish poem Deil's Hallowe'en:

"A drappie o' [drop of] the real McKay."

This clearly refers to the McKay (or MacKay) whisky. The 'real MacKay' expression occurs in Scottish newspapers quite frequently in the 1860s and must have been in common use in Scotland at that date. There's no proof (no pun intended) that MacKay's whisky is the source of this phrase but we can say for sure that Elijah McCoy, Kid McCoy and the Hatfields and McCoys weren't involved in its coinage as their respective supposed involvements all come years after the expression was already widely used in print.

The 'Real McCoy' variant, which is essentially the same phrase, comes later and the earliest examples that I have found come from Canada. James S. Bond's novel The Rise and Fall of the Union Club, 1881, contains this:

By jingo! yes; so it will be. It's the 'real McCoy,' as Jim Hicks says. Nobody but a devil can find us there.

A December 1891 edition of the Canadian newspaper The Winnipeg Free Press also includes the expression. Given that Elijah McCoy and the phrase 'the real MacKay' both moved from Scotland to Canada, it is possible that the adaption from 'real MacKay' to 'real McCoy' was done by him or on his behalf, but the real 'real MacKay', like the 'real McHoy', is Scottish.

All in all, this phrase, like several others that have many suggested possible sources, probably doesn't relate to any McCoy in particular. It may just have been coined to mean 'the real thing'.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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