Was there ever a real McCoy?
As so often in cases like these, there are numerous contenders for the role of McCoy in this phrase, which has been with us since at least the 1850s. Part of the problem facing researchers is that McCoy is a fairly common surname. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the earliest versions of the phrase give the saying as ‘the real McKay’: an 1856 example from the Oxford English Dictionary has it describing a brand of whisky, made by the distillers G. Mackay and Co. who used the tagline ‘a drappie [drop] o’ the real McKay’ to advertise their product. ‘The Real McKay’ was the same distillers’ advertising slogan in 1870, and this was certainly how Robert Louis Stevenson knew it when he used it in his writings as a current idiom to mean ‘the real thing’ or ‘the genuine article’.
Now for the mysterious next step: how did McKay become McCoy? Thanks to the British love of whisky, ‘the real McKay’ was clearly in common currency by the end of the nineteenth century, but was this the ultimate origin of the phrase we still use today? Many believe not; the broadcaster Alistair Cooke recounted in one of his celebrated Letters from America that a famous American cattle baron called Joseph McCoy was the ultimate source of the saying: this McCoy, the story goes, promised his investors that he would bring 200,000 cattle from Texas to Chicago in the space of ten years. In the event he is said to have brought ten times as many in only four years.
Another claimant to the title of the real McCoy is one William S. McCoy, a smuggler of illicit liquor during the US Prohibition era, who is said to have gone against the shady habit of rum-runners of the time of watering down their alcohol in order to maximize profits. William McCoy, by contrast, became famous for never watering his booze, and selling only real top-quality products. As a result, some have unsurprisingly placed him as the real Real McCoy.
By far the likeliest reason for the McKay/McCoy switch lies elsewhere. Norman Selby, who fought under the sobriquet Charles ‘Kid’ McCoy, was an American boxer who became welterweight champion in 1896 after knocking out Tommy Ryan, his sparring partner, to whom he had made out he was both unpractised and unfit. Selby is said to have demonstrated such one-upmanship more than once, prompting commentators to wonder which was ‘the real McCoy’. At the same time, Selby became so famous that he is said to have had many imitators who stole his name up and down the land. His response was to bill himself as Kid ‘the real’ McCoy from then on. With such a popular hero as this, the spelling change would have been complete.
An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent