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What’s The Real Story Behind The Expression ‘The Real McCoy?’

VancityAllie, flickr

When you’re faced with the real McCoy, you’re dealing with the real thing. It isn’t a copy or near likeness. It’s the honest-to-goodness genuine article.

It doesn’t mater if you’re talking about a valuable coin, a leather sofa, a bottle of whiskey or a living person.

When someone assures you that you’ve got the real McCoy in your hands, you know it isn’t a forgery. So what then is the real story behind this expression?

Scottish Roots

There’s a lot of uncertainty, and even a fair bit of myth surrounding this term. One of the most likely explanations for it dates back to the Scottish phrase ‘the real MacKay,’ which referred to fine whiskey, outstanding people, or high quality goods. The name MacKay got changed somewhere along the way to McCoy.

This term might also have stemmed from an argument between two potential clan leaders in Scotland, vying for title of chief. A man named Reay Mackay eventually won the fight, and became the new clan leader.

A Boxing McCoy

If you’re not happy with that explanation, here’s another: apparently, an American boxer born in the late 19th century whose birth name was Norman Selby also went my the name ‘Kid McCoy.’ Legend has it that he got into a drunken brawl with someone in order to prove that he was who he said he was. When he knocked the other fellow down, the man recovered, got up and announced that Selby was in fact, “the real McCoy.”

A Canadian Inventor

Yet another theory connects the term back to Elijah McCoy. This Canadian inventor built a machine for lubricating steam engines. Many other would-be inventors tried to copy his device. His original creation became known as the ‘real McCoy,’ in order to set it apart from the competition.

The Hatfield and McCoy Feud

One of the most popular, and romantic, explanations for this term comes from the famous Hatfield and McCoy Feud that took place in the late 1800s. The phrase even made it’s way into the A&E miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, although there doesn’t seems to be any solid proof that this is where the term actually came from.

Whiskey Roots

Regardless of its roots, the phrase ‘the real McCoy’ is now a part of our culture, and has been in common usage for quite some time. It was even used to describe good Scottish whiskey, once upon a time. Of course, in Scotland you would take a bit of ‘the real McKay,’ while in North America that would be ‘the real McCoy.’

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