Evidence suggests the term is a recent coinage. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, with which the BBC carried out a well-publicised search for references, the earliest occurrence of it in print was in 1988, although the phrase "we still tak 'em and mak 'em" was found in a sporting context in 1973 in reference to Sunderland Cricket & Rugby Football Club. While this lends support to the theory that this phrase was the origin of the term Mackem, there is nothing to suggest that "mak 'em" had come to be applied to people from Sunderland generally at such a date. The name Mackem refers to the Wearside shipyard workers in the 19th century (the biggest ship making industry in the world at that time) who would design and "make" the ships. The Geordies would then take them, hence "mackem and tackem" ("make them and take them").
The term could also be a reference to the volume of ships built during wartime on the River Wear, e.g. "We mackem and they sink em".
The term has come to represent people who follow the local football team Sunderland AFC, and may have been invented for this purpose. Newcastle and Sunderland have a history of rivalry beyond the football pitch, dating back to the early stages of the English Civil War, the rivalry following on industrial disputes of the 19th century and political rivalries after the 1974 creation of Tyne and Wear County.
Mackem refers to people born and bred in Sunderland and/or those who speak with a Sunderland accent. It is also often used to refer to fans of Sunderland AFC, regardless of where they actually come from.
To people from outside the region the differences between Mackem and Geordie accents often seem marginal, but there are many notable differences. There is even a small but noticeable difference in pronunciation between the accents of North and South Sunderland (for example, the word something in North Sunderland is often contracted to summik whereas a South Sunderland speaker may often prefer summat).
Make and take are pronounced mak and tak ([ˈmak] and [ˈtak]) in the most conservative forms of the dialect. This variation is the supposed reason why Tyneside shipyard workers might have coined "Mackem" as an insult. This pronunciation is also used in Scots.
School is split into two syllables, with a short [ə] sound added after the oo, separating it from the l: [ˈskʉ.əl]. This is also the case for words ending in -uel or -ool, which are monosyllabic in some other dialects, such as cruel, fuel and fool which in Mackem are [ˈkrʉəl], [ˈfjʉəl] and [ˈfʉəl]. This "extra syllable" occurs in other words spoken in a Mackem dialect, i.e. film is [ˈfɪləm] and poorly[ˈpʉəli]. This feature has led to some words being very differently pronounced in Sunderland. The word face, due to the inclusion of an extra [ə] and the contraction thereof, is often pronounced [ˈfjas]. While [ˈfjas] and some other cases of this extra vowel have been observed in the Geordie dialect,school in that variant is [ˈskjʉːl] versus Mackem's [ˈskʉ.əl] (and [ˈskʉːl] or [ˈskʉl] in most other dialects). This extra vowel feature is more prevalent to the north, in Scots and Scottish English, where it is due to the influence of the "Gaelic helping vowel" construction in the native Celtic, non-Germanic language Scots Gaelic.
The word endings -re and -er are pronounced [ə] as in Standard English, unlike the rhotic Scots variant. Cf. Geordie [æ].
Wesh and weshing (for wash and washing) are part of a wider regional dialectical trait which is reminiscent of Old English phonology, where stressed a mutated to e. This can also be observed in other modern Germanic languages, but it is particularly prevalent in German and Icelandic[clarification needed]
The dialect word haway means come on. In Newcastle it is often spelled and pronounced howay, while in Sunderland it is almost always haway. The latter spelling is featured in Sunderland A.F.C.'s slogan, "Ha'way The Lads." The local newspapers in each region use these spellings.[clarification needed]