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Mc (or Mac) is often used as a prefix in Gaelic-derived names.

In one class containing most such names, prefixing Mc does not affect the position of the accent somewhere on the base name. Thus Mc is unstressed. For example:

  • McDonald /mɛkˈdɑnl̩d/
  • MacArthur /mɛkˈarθr̩/
  • McCoy /mɛk̚ˈkoj/
  • McGill /mɛˈɡɪl/
  • McMahon /mɛkˈmæn/
  • McCarthy
  • McLeod
  • McDonnell
  • McCormack
  • McEwan
  • McAllister
  • McOrmond
  • McNuggets

But sometimes Mc takes stress:

  • McIntosh /ˈmækɪntɑʃ/
  • McIntyre /ˈmækɪntajr̩/
  • McAfee /ˈmækəfi/
  • McAvoy /ˈmækəvoj/

All of these I could think of contain a vowel-initial base name, but that's not a sufficient condition.

How can you determine which class a particular name belongs to, and what is the etymological reason for the distinction?

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I would argue that the stress is on the Mac part of MacArthur, or at least that Mac and Ar have almost equal stress. Note that the base name of your stressed examples start with vowel -- this might be the difference. – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jul 9 '12 at 3:01
@cornbreadninja: 'McIntosh' is the only one for me that has the stress on the 'mc'. (even though I realize that many stress 'McAfee' on the first, that neer sounds natural to me (as a plain old AmE speaker)). – Mitch Jul 9 '12 at 3:21
@cornbreadninja: But that's not a sufficient condition for being in the stressed class. – Mechanical snail Jul 9 '12 at 4:22
Proper names are not subject to general constraints on stress, in the first place, and prefixes from other languages are even less so. There's no regularity here to express with rules. – John Lawler Jul 9 '12 at 4:45
@Mechanicalsnail that is why I said might, and commented rather than answered. – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jul 9 '12 at 15:39

I believe it's just a case of a family name being pronounced as a family prefers to pronounce it, as well as the tendency to slur or shorten common words (such as m'lady for "my lady"), but there is one interesting aspect of Gaelic designations that may apply.

In Gaelic, Mac means "son" or "son of" and is pronounced Mack (as the "Mc" in McIntosh.) Mhic means "wife of the son of" and is pronounced as the "Mc" in McCoy. A woman with the given name of Niamh who married a man named Colm Mac Intosh would then be known as Niamh Mhic Intosh.

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I've heard that 'mhic' was also for grandfather (like "O'"). – Mitch Jul 9 '12 at 17:12
Been a while since I was in Ireland, but if I remember correctly, Mac = Son of, O'= grandson (or great-grandson, or great-great etc), Bean Mhic (shortned to Mhic) = wife of the son of and Nic = unmarried daughter of. I think there's a feminine version of O' as well, but I don't remember what it is. – Marcus_33 Jul 9 '12 at 17:24

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