Word Improvisation

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang

Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang

LAST summer the art historian Martin Bailey stirred controversy with his contention, appearing in the British publication The Art Newspaper, that as many as a hundred works attributed to the painter Vincent van Gogh were of questionable authenticity. Newsweek, in a story about this subject, reminded readers that a painting by Van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, had sold at auction in 1990 for $82.5 million: "That kind of money -- plus the fact that van Gogh's style is not only instantly recognizable but easy to imitate -- has made him a gold mine for forgers."

In truth, the lure can fall well short of "that kind of money." Whether the object is fine art, Depression glass, or signed baseballs and other celebrity memorabilia, America seems to have entered a golden age of forgeries, fakes, copycats, counterfeits, knockoffs, frauds, and spoofs. The question "Is this a phony -- or the real McCoy?" was once (albeit differently phrased) the domain chiefly of philosophers, theologians, and agents of the Treasury Department. Now it must be confronted almost daily by the average newspaper reader.

No serious doubt or compelling countertheory exists about the origin of phony. The word was lifted about a century ago from the lingo of con men, by whom the obsolete slang word fawney (handily anglicized from the Irish fáinne, "a finger ring") was used for an old switcheroo called the fawney rig (literally, "the ring trick"): crooks would palm off a gilt ring as a ring of gold at a price to match. Of course, the fawney was a phony. Early theorizing that phony had a mysterious link to the fabulous new telephone led to the now-standard ph spellings. (Nineteenth-century humorists' occasional spelling of funny as phunny probably helped.)

Holden Caulfield's famous disdain for human phonies in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) would be directed today at what teen slang designates as posers. A scaled-down poseur, the poser, generally a teenager or young adult, tries unsuccessfully to score points through shallow impostures; along with a desire to identify with a given trend or clique, stylish clothes and a firm superficiality may be all that's necessary. Posers are by definition bogus, but bogus has widened its compass considerably since the 1830s, when it was synonymous with "counterfeit money." Its origin is unknown, and the fact that it's also a surname only deepens the mystery. The suppleness of English syntax soon transformed the noun into an adjective -- a vernacular predecessor of phony -- and bogus eventually became a proper synonym for "counterfeit: false or spurious." But especially if you're under forty, bogus today is just as likely to mean "unpleasant or contemptible, unfair, bad," as in, "Man, this class is bogus!"

is a surname too, and the real McCoy surged forward in the United States after the turn of the century, meaning "the genuine article," sometimes money or whiskey in particular. Ingenious theories, such as a connection with the Portuguese colony of Macao, have been proposed. Three theories are worth a serious look.

One claim is that the really "real" McCoy was the welterweight and then later the middleweight champion Norman Selby (1873-1940), whose nom de guerre, "Kid McCoy," played a role in the idiom's popularization. But nobody has located any legions of contrasting fake McCoys, and the only direct connection to Selby lies in an unsubstantiated anecdote in which a skeptical drunk, after recovering from a blow from McCoy's fist, said, "It's the real McCoy!" One unverified assertion has it that the phrase appeared in press coverage of McCoy's big victory over Joe Choynski in 1899. Also unverified is the second theoretical claim: for the African-American inventor Elijah McCoy (1843-1929) as the "real" one. Certainly Kid McCoy was the best-known American McCoy (or at least Selby) of his era.

Theory No. 3 takes us to Scotland, where as early as 1856 The real McKay referred to Scotch whisky, although why is not clear. In 1870 "The real Mackay" evidently became the official slogan of G. Mackay and Co.'s Edinburgh distillery. By 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson was describing himself as "the real Mackay." A 1911 collection of Australian slang gives the contemporary pronunciation as "Muckeye." From McKay to "Muckeye" to McCoy is practically a snap. It could have happened, anyway.

In this instance as in so many others where words are concerned, the explanation of origin falls into a sort of limbo -- better than bogus, but not quite the real McCoy.

Illustration by Laura Levine

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; Getting Real; Volume 281, No. 2; page 108.