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

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Aug 28 11:31:51 EDT 2020


To be clear (and, heaven forfend [?], risking etymological theorizing), I do not propose that the many references to “the real McKay bill of 1844” are the origin of the now well-known phrase. Fred’s find is indeed a part of the puzzle, and adds to doubts from John Baker and others that the original referred to whisky.
But I was looking to see whether some relatively early uses show possible recognition of a yet-earlier usage (including perhaps uses of what is *not* the real M, variously spelled). Maybe, maybe not for that bill. Or for Garson’s 1856 find. Or for Capt. John Mackay of Massachusetts and 1830 or 1833ff discussions of whether his Mackay breed of swine (Daniel Webster owned some) is or is not a true or genuine or original breed.
Also, another text from Arbroath with “the real M’Kay” may be too late, 1899, to interest some here, though it is discussing an election of 1832, and it isn’t utterly clear what is old report and what is later commentary.
“…there were two Liberal parties in Arbroath. Then, they simply called themselves Liberals, each claiming to be ‘the real M’Kay.’ Now they are known by the respective names of Liberal and Liberal Unionists.”
It may be that the Scottish National Dictionary is on the right track in suggestion a possible origin in the Reay Mackays, or Rel [Sc. real] Mackays, “…the historic leading branch of the family, as opposed to the Aberach Mackays, a cadet branch, and others of the name, and they have been distinguished for their consistent loyalty to Presbyterianism and the House f Hanover, so that the transition from Reay to real in popular usage might seem quite natural….”

Stephen G.
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t7dr2wh27&view=1up&seq=80&q1=%22real%20m%27kay%22
https://dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/mackay

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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 8:41 AM
To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Major Antedating of "Real McCoy"

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
To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
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
To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
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
To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
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
To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
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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