“Handicapped” is Not What You Might Think

You’ve probably heard that the word “handicaped” is derived from the phrase “cap in hand”, which in modern times is equated with begging.  It’s a common story.  But it turns out that story is false.

When I first read this I was wary–after all, you can’t trust everything you read on the internet!–so I verified it with both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary, and sure enough, “handicapped” did not derive from “cap in hand”.

The term actually originated in the 1650’s with a popular game of barter called “hand-in-cap”. This reversal of words is significant.  As snopes.com puts it, “Those having momentary trouble grasping the importance of the term’s reversal should spend a moment contemplating the difference between “cathouse” and “housecat”.

In the barter game of “hand-in-cap”, says the Online Etylology Dictionary,  “two bettors would engage a neutral umpire to determine the odds in an unequal contest.”  Or as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “one person claimed an article belonging to another and offered something in exchange, any difference in value being decided by an umpire.” Without going into all the details, as part of the game, the contestants put their hands into a cap, thus the name.

Over time “hand-in-cap” was shortened to “handicap” and by the 1750’s grew beyond the name of a barter game to refer to any specific action that worked to make a sporting contest more equitable, or what we would today call “leveling the playing field”.  In horse racing, for instance, where one horse had an obvious advantage over another, an umpire would require the superior horse to carry extra weight in order to equalize the competition.

However, as more time passed, the word evolved in a more negative direction, and came to mean  an “imposed impediment” and then just “impediment”. In the 1880’s the term evolved beyond the realm of sports into more general language and in the early 1900’s began to be used in reference to children with disabilities.

Today the earlier sports-related “level the playing field” meaning has been retained in the game of golf. According to the United States Golf Association, handicapping “enables golfers of all skill levels to compete on an equitable basis.”

It’s a fascinating story.  I highly recommend you read the fuller history of the word “handicap” on snopes.com where they also discuss the evolution of the term “cap in hand.”

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