The Real McCoy

the true stories behind our everyday phrases and sayings

Review of: The Real McCoy
Book by:
Georgia Hole

Reviewed by:
On 27 June 2009
Last modified:25 February 2015


Where these terms comes from

English is incredibly rich language, full of colorful and unusual phrases and sayings. This is one of those books which offers explanations for commonly used expressions. For instance, why do we say ‘know your onions’, ‘straight as a die’, and ‘the apple of your eye’? The answer in the last example is that the pupil was once supposed to be round. The Real McCoy is unusual as an expression in that nobody really knows its true origin.

The Real McCoyAnother typical example is ‘Mad as a hatter’. I knew this one, because it comes from the mercury poisoning used in felt hat manufacture – a former speciality in the town where I live. Most of the entries are very short. However, there are occasional special sections dealing with groups of – such as Biblical expressions, colours, eating and drinking, foreign countries, legends and myths, parts of the body and expressions coined by Shakespeare. Most of the entries are ploddingly obvious. I think that just about everybody knows that ‘full of beans’ means ‘lively and in high spirits’ and that the origin comes from vegetable protein.

However, there were one or two expressions I had certainly not thought about, such as ‘curry favour’ which has nothing to do with cooking or the Indian subcontinent, but comes from the expression curry as in to groom a horse with a coarse brush or comb.

And I certainly didn’t realise that a devil’s advocate was originally an official Catholic appointment during the process of beatification. The person’s role was to challenge the case being made for sainthood.

It’s an easy and lightweight approach to the subject. The entries come with no evidence or credible sources, and there’s no bibliography or list of further reading.

This could be useful as a Xmas or birthday present for someone who hasn’t yet thought much about the quirky nature of language. For something more substantial you will need to go to books such as The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms or Michael Quinion’s Port Out, Starboard Home.

© Roy Johnson 2005

The Real McCoy   Buy the book at Amazon UK
The Real McCoy   Buy the book at Amazon US

Georgia Hole, The Real McCoy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp.200, ISBN: 0192806114

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