Tracking Down 'the Real McCoy'

How can we speakers of the English tongue expect those who use other languages from birth ever to get a handle on our odd approach to words?

Think of it.

No sooner has a Frenchman learned that the English for "citron" is "lemon" than he discovers that the word lemon also means a color, and, much more obscurely, that it can signify anything from a car so faulty that it must have been made before breakfast on a foggy Monday morning to a substandard ironing board.

How such a piquant and stimulating fruit could have lent its good name to describe something that does not make the grade is a mystery for which I have so far been unable to find any explanation at all, let alone a convincing one. So I cannot take this opportunity to dazzle my faithful readers with a revelatory display of etymologically informative legerdemain.

However, I do have some information to relay about ironing boards.

Die-hard masculist that I am (not really), the ironing board is not a subject in which I profess much overt interest. On the other hand, it was the butler in Edwardian households who used to iron his master's newspaper every morning, so this useful invention is not exclusively handy to one sex.

Be that as it may, what Bonnie Hilton of Fort Worth, Texas, conveys in a letter to me, I do find intriguing.

She writes:

"During 'Black History Month' I learned what was originally meant when one asked, 'Is this the real McCoy?' A black slave named McCoy invented the ironing board in about 1901. When people flocked to buy it ... from a hardware store near a plantation, other 'ironing boards,' which broke down, appeared at other stores. Therefore, when one purchased an ironing board, one always asked, 'Is this the real McCoy?' "

Several different explanations of this pungent phrase for the authentic, the original, the genuine article, have found their way into books.

One tells of a boxer named McCoy who proved he was not a poor imitation by knocking out an innocent who made unbelieving inquiry on the matter. When this doubter came to, he famously uttered the words "Yeah - ah - that's the - ah - real McCoy."

Another explanation offered is that it is actually a Scottish phrase, more properly "the real Mackay." Scottish drink manufacturers have apparently co-opted it to distinguish brands made in the land of the Wallace and the Bruce from brands made in the land of the Sony and the Honda.

I am in no position to argue these cases. (Particularly as the Honda I drive here in Scotland never ever goes wrong. It is everything a reliable car should be; as smooth and sturdy as a vintage ironing board.)

But Mrs. Hilton's tale sounds convincing to me, even if it is rather more domesticated and everyday than the other "real McCoy" theories.

I wonder if she has anything to offer on "lemon"?

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