The name is first recorded as "Mowel" around 1270 AD, and is believed to be derived from either the Anglo-SaxonMūga-hyll, meaning "heap-hill", with copp = "head" added later, or the Common Celtic ancestor of Welsh moel (= hill), with Anglo-Saxon copp added later.
Since the late 20th century, Mow Cop is known for its Killer Mile, a one-mile road race from the level railroad crossing on the western side of the hill, up to the castle. The race was first organized in the early 1980s by John Britton, and sponsored by ICL (Kidsgrove). It continues today, organised by the Mow Cop Residents' Association. Mow Cop Runners, a local running club founded in 2009, meet at the Ash Inn and organise The Mow Cop Hill Race, a 6.5 mile fell race.