David R. Stronck, of California State University at Hayward, sent a copy of the McDonald's booklet to us after he noticed that it contained some "history" that was both familiar and phony. Her McLadyship declared that "The Father of Lubrication" was a black inventor named Elijah McCoy, and that the phrase the real McCoy had been coined to distinguish Elijah McCoy's excellent lubrication devices from "cheap imitations."
We had seen the same story in 1992, when Prentice Hall put it into the teacher's edition of a schoolbook, and we had traced it to a worthless pamphlet issued in 1985 by Empak Publishing Company (in Chicago), but no one at Empak could tell us how the story had originated.
In any case, the story is bogus, and the history of the phrase the real McCoy is uncertain. Scholarly sources suggest several possible etymologies, none of which involves any inventor or inventions. See "The Fake McCoy" in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1992.
Prentice Hall is not the only schoolbook outfit to have peddled that bogus "history" of the real McCoy. Scholastic Inc. has promoted it for years, in a 30-page book titled The Real McCoy. Written by one Wendy Towle and dated in 1993, Scholastic's product consists largely of pictures and evidently is intended for use in elementary schools. Towle begins her text with some weaseling that, I guess, is supposed to serve as a disclaimer:
Where did the expression "the real McCoy" come from? There are many legends [sic] surrounding the origin of this phrase, one of which revolves around Elijah McCoy, a successful African-American inventor.
But Towle never says a word about any of the other "legends." Manifestly, her purpose is to convince children that the story connecting the real McCoy with Elijah McCoy is true.
William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.
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