The real McCoy is the genuine article, and there are three origins that all contributed to the spread of the catchphrase. Closest to home and perhaps the earliest to be attested is Canadian and American railroaders’ jargon where the real McCoy was the nickname for a railway car self-lubricating coupling and cup invented by an African Canadian named Elijah McCoy who was born in Colchester South, Ontario. McCoy’s self-lubricating cup permitted metal joints to be oiled automatically as the machines that contained them worked. Railway cars ran longer and more smoothly with Elijah McCoy’s invention.
One model of the McCoy lubricating cup
Here is one summary of McCoy's far from happy life, originaly written as promotional material for a play about Elijah McCoy: “Born in Canada to runaway slaves, McCoy became a leading expert in the field of thermo-dynamics whose inventions revolutionized steam engine travel. When others tried to imitate his achievements, people began asking if what they were buying was ‘the real McCoy.’ When railroad engineers especially asked for a lubricating joint, they always wanted McCoy’s invention and asked for ‘the real McCoy.’ McCoy’s move to Detroit in the United States (see photo of memorial plaque below) exposed him to adversity and eventually stripped him of his inventions, his sanity and his life.”
Canadian playwright Ashante Infantry recently wrote an entire play about this early African-Canadian whiz.“The Real McCoy” opened in Toronto in 2006 to highly favorable reviews. The play runs until February 26th, 2006, and tickets are available by calling the box office at Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario,Canada.
This historical plaque conveniently covers up the nastier parts of Elijah McCoy's life in Detroit, like so much white recounting of black history. For a more balanced treatment of the inventor's story, read the school book pictured below published by Scholastic Press.
The book above is an excellent school text. There is also a good website with Elijah McCoy's story:
OTHER POSSIBLE SOURCES OF THE PHRASE
But the phrase was alive in Scotland too, as “the real Mackay,” a superior Scotch whisky made by the Mackay company. The phrase appears in print in Scotland by the 1870s and also in a slight variant as “the real McKie.” Even in America , Mackay’s whisky had brand clout, and was advertised widely as “the clear Mackay” which by prohibition times was whispered in American speakeasies as “the real Mackay”_an amber distillate far superior to the illegal, watery rotgut being peddled in most honky-tonk dives of the era.
Both those usages predate the origin that gave wide currency to the expression in the United States . A boxer named Norman Selby (1873-1940) took the ring name of Kid McCoy in 1891. He won the world welterweight championship in 1897 and two years later in a spectacular boxing match that went twenty rounds McCoy knocked out heavyweight Joe Choynski. A headline the next morning in the San Francisco Examiner written by their sportswriter William Naughton blared: “NOW YOU’VE SEEN THE REAL McCOY!” The catchphrase raced across American newspapers and stuck in public speech as a synonym for ‘the goods, the authentic thing.’
McCoy himself did not last long on the canvas. In 1900 he saw stars the hard way when he was k.o.’d by Gentleman Jim Corbett. In The Real McCoy, a racy biography of the boxer, Robert Cantwell traced the man’s sad decline. He tried running a saloon in New York City . It failed. He tried showbiz, appearing as a boxer in an early and classic silent film, Broken Blossoms, directed in 1919 by D. W. Griffith. He tried marriage, ten times. In 1924 he tried nine years in San Quentin for manslaughter. The judge disagreed, but most people attached to the case figured McCoy murdered his mistress. It seems ten wives did not completely occupy his free time. He committed suicide in 1940 and left a note which he ended with this signature: “Norman Selby.” At the end, even the real McCoy was sick of his own moniker.
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
Reviews of my Book
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A Great New Review of My Latest Book!
October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
In the best of the spiritual tradition, Bill is the shape-shifter who constantly leads you to all the places you need to find in your soul. Every page is a new country, an invitation to an excursion into the wonderland of rich connections with the myriad of sources of what so often we unthinkingly wield as a prosaic tool.
Pay absolutely no attention to anyone who tells you that this book is anything but pure gold. It’s simply not true, sadly, that all the world loves a lover. Particularly someone whose love is so boundless.
But Sir William is fearless. You don’t earn your keep as a medicine man if you have a thin skin. While I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could walk away from this book unmoved by its wit, its wisdom and the beautiful transparency by which the author celebrates the glorious romp of our almost unlimited linguistic exuberance, I have to sadly conclude that once in a while, you do meet someone who can’t see the forest for the trees, eh?
Read this book. Leave it on the sofa instead of the $%#!*$% TV remote. Maybe someone you care about will pick it up, even just for a moment, and fall in love with their heritage?
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.)
Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
“I admit it: I’m a word nerd. I love words: weird words, long words, obscure words, funny words. This book is right up my alley. With chapters like “Nautical Words,” “Creepy Words,” and “Edible Words,” I have enjoyed every page of this book.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
Tags: 365 things to look forward to, books, reading
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
A search for the origins of an improbable-looking word, paraprosdokian, led me to the first piece of your prose I have had the pleasure of reading, “The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe.” I have just placed an order for Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, Canadian Words & Sayings, and As The Canoe Tips, and will add more of your titles as I finish these.
I have just retired from a 40-plus year career in book publishing, the last thirty years spent as director/editor of a number of university presses, attempting to sort the genuine writers from the “Lazy Con Artists of Academe.” Sad to say, the latter have so over-bred the former that I could no longer see the rare gem in the avalanches of offal that daily swamped my office and desk. I visited your website and spent far too long there; it was a pleasure to meet a real writer through his work.
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
I know I will enjoy your books. Keep up the good work.
University of New Mexico Press, among others
Hundreds of links to more of my word entries are available below.
The Real McCoy: Canadian origin of the phrase
Elijah McCoy and The Real McCoy
Real McCoy and its Canadian source
Black History of Canada
Canadian Black history
Afro-Canadian history of Canada