Feb
02
2006

Will the real McCoy please stand up?

Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy

It's an annual tradition here at The Science Museum. Every February for Black History Month we roll out a panel honoring Black Americans in science. And every February, Gene complains that the panel contains an error.

Part of the panel pays tribute to Elijah McCoy. The son of runaway slaves, McCoy studied engineering and went on to invent many devices, including a lubricator for railroad engines.

The panel also cites Elijah's invention as the origin of the phrase "the real McCoy." Unfortunately, that does not seem possible:

  • The phrase first appears in Scotland, in the form "the real McKay," in 1856, when Elijah was only 12 years old.
  • The phrase changed from "McKay" to "McCoy" around 1908 — more than 30 years after Elijah patented his invention.
  • The lubricators were not sold under the McCoy name until 1920, well after the phrase had become established.
  • Elijah's name was not connected to the phrase until 1985.

Make no mistake — Elijah McCoy's inventions were a boon to railroading. It's only right that we honor his contribution to engineering. But, as a science museum, we really need to be more careful with the facts. It's a small thing, but as a label writer, mistakes like this bug me.

(NOTE: I am writing this post from the wilds of mid-Michigan. I haven't seen the panel this year — it's possible that the error has been corrected. If so, I will amend this post.)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Many particulars about African American inventions were not formulated until later. The time the phrase was credited to Elijah McCoy may or may not have any bearing what-so-ever on the probability that Elijah coined the phrase itself. Small but we must be careful not to give credit where credit deserves nesting.

posted on Mon, 01/29/2007 - 4:33pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I have never heard anyone claim that Elijah McCoy coined the phrase himself. Rather, the claim is made that railroad workers started using the phrase in reference to the McCoy lubricator, and that this usage then passed on to the general public.

There are three big problems with this:

1) McCoy started selling his lubricators under his name in 1920; the first article citing Elijah as the source of the phrase appeared in 1985. The idea that a phrase could be in circulation for 65 years without anyone making the connection is pretty much unheard of in etymology (the study of word origins);

2) the phrase "the real McCoy" appears in print as early as 1908, well before the lubricators were sold under that name;

3) the predecessor phrase, "the real McKay," appears in print when McCoy himself was only 12 years old.

A fourth argument could be made -- it is very unusual for phrases used in some very specific line of work to migrate into general usage.

These are all strong indications that this story was made up -- perhaps honestly and with good intentions, but nevertheless false.

posted on Fri, 02/02/2007 - 11:35am
InMyMind's picture
InMyMind says:

Sooo, 10-4, Tiiimberrr, Aye-Aye Cap'n (all phrases indicative of a particular trade) have never been used by anyone outside of those trades? Not a good argument.

posted on Sat, 06/09/2012 - 2:36pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How come they give us the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History?

posted on Tue, 02/06/2007 - 10:00pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

According to various sources, including Wikipedia,

"Black History Month was established in 1976 by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The month-long celebration was an expansion of Negro History Week, which was established in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, director of what was then known the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson selected the week in February that embraced the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The celebration may have had its origins in the separate efforts of Mary Church Terrell and the African American collegiate fraternity Omega Phi Psi. The former had begun the practice of honoring Frederick Douglass on February 14th, the date he used to mark his birth."

But there's no reason to celebrate Black history in February only. Everyone stands to benefit from learning more about pioneers, innovators, and other heroes of all colors throughout the year.

posted on Tue, 02/06/2007 - 10:10pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what does "will the real mccoy please stand up mean"?

posted on Wed, 02/28/2007 - 3:01pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Time for a history lesson...

From 1956 to 1967, CBS ran a prime time game show called To Tell The Truth. (A syndicated version ran until 1978.) In this game, three contestants all pretended to be the same person. A panel of celebrity judges asked questions to try and determine which contestant was telling the truth. At the end of each round, the MC would reveal the answer by asking, "Will the real _____ please stand up?"

The phrase has entered the popular lexicon. Search for +"will the real" +"please stand up" on Ask.com, and you get 160,000 hits.

I used the phrase as the headline of this post for two reasons. First, as a pun on the phrase "real McCoy." And second -- and this gets to your question -- to convey the idea that there are several theories as to how the phrase originated, but, just like on the TV show, only one theory is right.

I hope that answers your question!

posted on Wed, 02/28/2007 - 3:21pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Hello I am wondering if there are any web sites containing Elijah McCoy if so which web site?

posted on Mon, 03/05/2007 - 2:46pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Enter "Elijah McCoy" into a search engine such as Ask.com, and you get 13,000 hits -- many of which, unfortunately, repeat the disproven theory that his name inspired the phrase "the real McCoy."

Here are a few to get you started:

Blackinventor.com
Ideafinder.com
About.com
Africawithin.com
Blackhistorysociety.ca

But for the buzz on the phrase, "the real McCoy," the best is RandomHouse.com.

posted on Mon, 03/05/2007 - 6:24pm

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