[Ads-l] Major Antedating of "Real McCoy"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Aug 27 07:58:55 EDT 2020


The expression "the real McCoy" is generally recognized to be a variant of an earlier Scottish term "real Mackay" or "real McKay" or "real M'Kay."  The Oxford English Dictionary has a first use from an 1856 poem.  The OED, I believe, misspells the 1856 usage -- they have it as "McKay" when it was actually "M'Kay."

In searching the British Newspaper Archive I have found "real Mackay" in a Scottish newspaper, the Arbroath Guide, Feb. 12, 1848, page 11, column 3.  This occurs in a colorful police court report concerning one James Quin, who was convicted of substituting a cheaper hat for a more expensive one left in his care.  The report states: "The hat was shining and glossy, and, like the renovator, _sleekit_; and though some doubts were at first entertained as to its being the real Mackay, the lining having been recognised, all seemed right, the hat was accepted of, the shilling paid, when Quin with pantomimic rapidity disappeared."

Unlike some of the other early citations that have been found for "real Mackay" or its spelling variants, this is not a possibly coincidental reference to someone in the context of the citation who was named Mackay, but is a figurative reference and a clearly already established idiom.  The 1848 usage does not explain the ultimate derivation, but pushes back the provenance and may predate the whiskey tagline (of the Edinburgh distillers G. McKay and Co.) that the OED and others have thought to be the source of the term.

Fred Shapiro

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