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Front Page » Opinion » When You Seek Facts Make Sure You Get The Real Mccoy

When You Seek Facts Make Sure You Get The Real Mccoy

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Written by on June 22, 2006

By Michael Lewis
Journalists first learn to cite a source. Next they learn that more sources add weight. But only the best learn to assess well the credibility of sources.

Any passerby is a source. Two or three add strength. But even a thousand passersby can’t yield valid commentary on nuclear physics – or much of anything else.

Finding good sources is the trick when you hunt information. And while the Internet puts more and more words at our fingertips each second, its impersonality makes it harder and harder to assess their validity.

The impact of sourcing was driven home when, in a chat with our son, someone mentioned "the real McCoy"- meaning genuine rather than an imitation. That he understood. But what, he asked, was the derivation?

I turned to books and then to the Internet to give him a lesson. But I got the lesson myself.

After finding six contradictory derivations in books, I sent George a note concluding, "Bottom line: It’s your choice." All sources seemed authoritative, but few agreed.

Then I tried the Internet. Lots of choices – those in my books plus more. I still couldn’t tell which was the real McCoy.

Trivial as was my quest, it replicated what we do when we seek vital facts: tap many sources, target the most authoritative and expect even the best to disagree.

Moreover, don’t blindly accept the majority view – because all may be using an earlier source that was itself flawed. Know your sources, and then know your sources’ sources.

Pity historians who reconstruct the past. They have to figure out where their source got its information and where the earlier source got its and so on. And even if they get back to the original observer centuries ago, they must then ferret out the biases of that recorder of history to get the real McCoy.

So, who or what is the real McCoy?

Various sources say the phrase refers to a barroom encounter with boxer Kid McCoy, whom a fellow drinker thought was a poser until he got slugged. Thus, he was the real McCoy, says Robert Claiborne in "Loose Cannons and Red Herrings," a 1988 Ballantine book. "But tales are all they are: In the first recorded use of the expression (in Scotland), it was McKay, not McCoy."

David Feldman in "Who Put the Butter in Butterfly," published in 1989 by Barnes & Noble, says Kid McCoy, a boxer in the 1890s whose real name was Norman Selby, was beset by imitators and so had to name himself Kid "the Real" McCoy. But, he says, the expression could also refer to an excellent Scotch whisky named Mackay – not McKay, as Mr. Claiborne has it.

In "What in the Word," published last year by Harcourt, Charles Harrington Elster says the derivation couldn’t have been the boxer McCoy because the phrase was documented as early as 1856 – though Mr. Feldman says it was first documented around the turn of the 20th century.

Ah, let’s turn to the master of etymology, not always right but never boring, H.L. Mencken, whose "The American Language" has been the basis for many others’ works. In his second supplement, published in 1948, he deals with the topic in an elongated footnote.

"The origin of this term has been much debated and is still unsettled," Mr. Mencken writes. "Etymologies relating it to Kid McCoy, the pugilist, and Bill McCoy, an eminent rum-runner … are improbable. The late Alfred E. Smith, appealed to for light, once derived it from the name of a Bowery oracle named McCoy, whose word on any subject was accepted as the lowdown … but Al actually knew no more about the matter than any other Harvard LL.D." – Mr. Mencken’s admonition to consider the source when seeking experts. Mr. Smith, a 1928 presidential candidate, was 180 degrees from our man on the street – but still no credible authority on the real McCoy.

Mr. Mencken offers other derivations: a British firm that sold quality narcotics, a commercial nitroglycerine used by safecrackers, an Irish ballad about a woman named McCoy who beat her husband to show that she was the real McCoy, the real McKaye of Scotland (yet another spelling for that variant) and an 18th century split in the clan McCoy. Take your choice.

On the Web, The Mavens’ Word of the Day quotes author Robert Louis Stevenson talking about "the real Mackay" in an 1883 letter – well ahead of boxer McCoy. But the same source cites heroin brought in from Macao being called "the real Macao."

A letter to the Guardian Unlimited Web site from a Danish source says the phrase refers to Elijah McCoy, born in Canada in 1844. "He had many different inventions including an ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Other companies copied his devices, but these never worked as well as Elijah’s, so people would say, "I want a …, and make sure it’s the real McCoy." But another writer to the same source says Elijah’s invention was a lubricator for steam engines – for which very few people would logically be asking.

Another writer to the Guardian says the phrase refers to old-fashioned cookie jars "you often see at flea markets and antique shops" made by McCoy. Another writer agrees that it refers to ceramic pieces made in the 1940s and 1950s – decades after others had documented use of the phrase. It’s hard to be the origin decades after the fact.

And from Wikipedia, these theories: the McCoys who feuded with the Hatfields in late 19th century West Virginia or a cattle baron named Joseph McCoy. From the Phrase Finder: Joseph McCoy (1837-1915), mayor of Alilene, KA, who reportedly called himself the real McCoy.

So there it is, the authoritative information.

You aren’t convinced?

Why, I’ve got sources right here that say so, so it must be the real McCoy.