About the Meaning of "Handicap"
Jerry: "I didn't know you played golf, Bob. What's your handicap?"
Bob: "One of my arms is longer than the other."
-- The Bob Newhart Show, American sit-com c. 1975
Many disability rights advocates hate the
term "handicap." Some of them claim that the term has an evil and
insulting history, and they hate it for this history. Most of these
histories are myths. I'm writing this small commentary to dispel the
Most versions of the handicap-etymology myth
claim that handicap was derived from "cap-in-hand" which refers to
begging in the street. (No one bothers to explain why the word isn't
"capihand.") Some versions even put a date on it, and a dramatic
story about disabled war veterans and a king who allowed only people
with impairments to beg in the streets.
It's all false. Here's the true etymology of
handicap, as far as we know it.
The Oxford English Dictionary is the
acknowledged best source of information on etymology words in the
English language. It provides quotations from written sources of the
earliest known uses of terms. It carefully distinguishes between the
earliest meanings and later derived meanings, using quotations to
The earliest use of the term handicap is
from a quotation dated 1653. The definition for this use is this:
"The name of a kind of sport having an element of chance in it, in
which one person challenged some article belonging to another, for
which he offered something of his own in exchange." I will discuss
this "sport," because it is interesting to trace how the meanings
change. The sport itself is seen in reports as early as the
fourteenth century. Only the term handicap was new in the seventeenth
The original sport was a trading game,
involving two traders and an umpire or matchmaker. Each of the two
traders offered a particular item for trade, and also put up a small
sum of forfeit-money into a hat or cap. The 14th century example
(from Peirs Plowman) involved the trade of a cloak for a hood. The
umpire of the game decides on the difference in value between the two
trading items. This difference is called the "boot" or "odds." The
judge might decide, for example, that the hood was worth six pence
less than the cloak. He would propose that the cloak be traded for
the hood plus the boot of six pence.
The tricky part of the game is that each
trader has the choice of accepting or rejecting the umpire's
proposal. The traders' decisions determine what happens to the
forfeit money. Both traders put their hands into the cap, and draw
them out at the same time. An open hand is an agreement to trade and
a closed hand is a refusal to trade. If both traders make the same
decision (either to accept or reject the trade), then the umpire
takes the forfeit money. If one trader refuses and the other agrees,
the trader who agrees takes the forfeit money. The umpire is left
with nothing, and the refusing trader loses his forfeit
This game was called handy-capp or
handicap, apparently from the fact that both traders put their hands
in the cap and removed them to indicate their willingness to trade.
Notice the game is called handicap. The difference in value is called
the boot or the odds. Notice also that the game is designed to reward
the umpire's fairness in judging the boot. The umpire wins the
forfeit money if both players agree to its fairness. If both reject
the trade, the traders would never have agreed to any trade, and the
umpire is rewarded for the traders' stubbornness.
To me this sounds more like the stock
market than a sport. But it survived for several hundred years.
Definition #2 began around 1750, when the term handicap began to
apply to horseraces. The "boot" was the difference in the weight
carried by two horses in order to make the match equal. Again, the
weight difference was not called the handicap. As horse racing became
more organized, with larger fields, the matchmakers became
professionals and forfeit money was abandoned. The matchmaker became
known as a handicapper, and the race was called a handicap race, or
just a handicap. The term was later applied to other contests. The
OED's definition #3 (from 1875) is "Any race or competition in which
the chances of the competitors are sought to be equalized by giving
an advantage to the less efficient or imposing a disadvantage upon
the more efficient."
Notice that the term handicap still does
not apply to disadvantages themselves. It applies to the contest. But
about the same time the term began to be used metaphorically to refer
to disadvantages. These were still usually in the context of sport,
but sometimes referred to economic competition between nations; "A
high expenditure and heavy taxation handicaps a country." (That
modern-sounding quotation comes from 1894.)
It is interesting to notice that the oldest British sports still use
the term in a way that resembles the old uses. A handicap in horse
racing still refers to a race, not to the extra weight. In golf (a
game almost as old as horse racing) the handicap is a
benefit given to inferior players, not an extra burden on
Finally, the first use of handicap to
designate mental or physical impairment is recorded in a 1915 photo
caption: The Handicapped Child.
In all this discussion about etymology, I
am not trying to defend the use of the term handicap to mean
impairment. Many people dislike the term because of its association
with old-fashioned attitudes towards impairments. That's a perfectly
good reason to avoid the term. We don't need to have an evil
etymology in order to discourage the use terms that we find
offensive. And we look especially foolish when we claim myths to be
true. They are too easy to refute.
Some disability rights advocates have used
a more accurate etymology to explain their dislike for "handicap."
They say that its earlier association with sports is too competitive.
It implies that disabled people should be trying to "overcome" their
handicaps in the same way that heavily weighted horses do. If sports
metaphors bother you, that's ok with me. But I still don't think we
need to dream up etymological explanations in order to justify our
preferences. I know plenty of people who dislike the term but don't
care about sports metaphors one way or the other.
Consider the history in the United States of
the changing terminology that applies to people of African descent.
The NAACP even has the term "colored people" embedded in it, but that
terminology is no longer acceptable. There is no reason to invent a
mythological history to explain how the term "colored people" has an
evil etymology. When terms become associated with outmoded ways of
thought, the terms have to be changed.
There is some bad news in this, too. As we activists get older, the younger activists will scold us for our old-fashioned ways of talking. Some of them will probably dream up ridiculous etymologies to prove that our ways of talking are politically reactionary. Oh, well. That's life.
But if anyone knows the origins of the "cap-in-hand" story or the King story, I'd be glad to hear about them. Urban legends are fun. Remember the one about the poodle in the microwave?
ronald (at) hawaii.edu
Dept. of Philosophy, University of Hawaii at Hilo