The Real McCoy

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In the second part of this exploration of meaning and derivation, we work out just who is the real McCoy and discover how Kingfishers spend their halcyon days…

The real McCoy
This originated in Scotland just over a hundred century ago. A ‘real Mackay’ referred to both people and things of the very highest quality and, in particular, to a brand of whisky. Later, in America, it became known as ‘the real McCoy’, in honour of an outstanding boxer of that name, who is said to have done everything he could to avoid being provoked by a drunk who insisted on quarrelling with him. Despite warnings from all those present, the drunk started fighting McCoy who then finally knocked him out to put an end to things. On regaining consciousness the drunk got up, dusted himself down, and said, “You’re right, it’s the real McCoy”. This phrase is still used today and translates as ‘the real thing’.

To mind your Ps and Qs
This is a warning to be polite and to be careful in one’s actions and behaviour. It is usually said to the young but, originally, it was probably directed at printers to remind them to be careful of these two letters of the alphabet in case they were mixed or placed upside down when setting up the type. Alternatively another interpretation is as a warning to customers in pubs to mind their Ps (pints) and Qs (quarts) when these were ‘chalked up’ and would eventually have to be paid for. Yet another explanation is said to come from French court etiquette, in the days when large wigs were fashionable. The ‘p’ was an abbreviated translation for the French pied or foot and the ‘q’ ‘le queue’ which was the hanging plaited tail of a wig. The warning was to remind everyone to watch where they put their feet. They needed to keep them together and to bow slowly and gracefully so that their wigs would not get entangled with others or fall off!

This has always been subject to conjecture and open to interpretation (in a similar way to those pursuing the origin of the words OK and jazz).

However most probably it relates to the past when a journey on an ocean liner could take many weeks. The privileged, of course, always chose to travel as comfortably as possible on the longer sea voyages. The cabins most in demand were the coolest ones on the Far East run which were those facing north. And so the best and most expensive cabins to book were those on the Port side Outward and on the Starboard side Home. The shipping lines gave an abbreviated translation to this booking procedure of the wealthy to posh and the expression has long been used to describe smart, tiptop people.

Keep your fingers crossed
Fingers are linked with many superstitions. When we cross them we are in effect resorting to the ancient belief that it will ward off misfortune, or bring us good luck against setbacks. There are many expressions about fingers. Some have let things ’slip through their fingers’ or had something ‘at their fingertips’ or a ‘finger in the pie’, ‘pointed the finger at someone’ or ‘twisted them around one’s little finger’. The fingers of a clumsy person are interpreted as ‘all thumbs’, while the exceptional person is said to have more wisdom in their little finger than in their whole body. Fingers have also been associated with powers of healing. The third finger of the left hand was believed to have a special link with the heart and this is why it is chosen as the one on which to wear the wedding ring.

Halcyon Days
This refers to happy times remembered for their peace, contentment and perfection. Halcyon is a translation from the Greek language for the kingfisher. According to myth, the gods promised that whenever she was hatching eggs in their nests the wind would be held back and the sea would remain calm. The seven days preceding the winter solstice in December was the time used by these birds to build their nests on the water and the next seven days was when they hatched their eggs. Although kingfishers nest in tunnels beside river banks, not on the ocean, their nests are frequently lined with fishbones and the Mediterranean is usually calm at the time of the solstice. Hence the expression ‘halcyon days’ denoting periods of calm and contentment.

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