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

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Aug 27 08:41:43 EDT 2020


I thought of mentioning John Mackay in my email, but decided that that would only encourage another instance of etymological theorizing based on what is clearly a coincidence.  In the police court report in the 1848 newspaper, immediately following the Quin hat story, there is a separate item about a John Mackay who was convicted of stealing a pair of shoes.  This is a striking coincidence, but, as I said, it is clearly only a coincidence,  Maybe Mackay was a very common name in 19th-century Scotland.

Fred Shapiro



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From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
Sent: Thursday, August 27, 2020 8:27 AM
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Subject: Re: Major Antedating of "Real McCoy"

I only see a snippet of that newspaper with the name John MacKay. Was he the hat owner?

SG
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From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
Sent: Thursday, August 27, 2020 8:18 AM
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Subject: Re: Major Antedating of "Real McCoy"

Great, Fred.
Though that may well be the earliest known, it presumably was not the first use.
Previously I mentioned three --though maybe not relevant--uses in 1846 of "the real McKay bill of 1844."
Now American Historical Newspapers has at least eight newspaper issues using it. Maybe mere coincidence, though I wonder why it was called that, rather than the original or the genuine bill.

SG
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From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Charles C Doyle <cdoyle at UGA.EDU>
Sent: Thursday, August 27, 2020 8:07 AM
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Subject: Re: Major Antedating of "Real McCoy"

Good job, Fred!

--Charlie
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From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>
Sent: Thursday, August 27, 2020 7:58 AM
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Subject: Major Antedating of "Real McCoy"

[EXTERNAL SENDER - PROCEED CAUTIOUSLY]


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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