Handicap comes from an old method of setting odds in a horse race or other contest. Two bettors would engage a neutral umpire to determine the odds in an unequal contest. The bettors would put their hands holding forfeit money into a hat or cap. The umpire would announce the odds and the bettors would withdraw their hands—hands full meaning that they accepted the odds and the bet was on, or hands empty meaning they did not accept the bet and were willing to forfeit the money. If one forfeited, then the money went to the other bettor. If both agreed on either forfeiting or going ahead with the wager, then the umpire kept the money as payment. The word is a shortening of hand in the cap.

This process is described in William Langland’s 14th century Piers Plowman, where at the New Fair, Clement the Cobbler bet his cloak against Hikke the Hackneyman’s hood and Robin the Roper was appointed umpire to determine the odds. From the c.1377 B-text of that work:

Clement the Cobelere caste of his cloke,
And at the newe feire nempned it to selle.
Hikke the Hakeneyman hitte his hood after,
And bad Bette the Bocher ben on his syde.
Ther were chapmen ychose this chaffare to preise:
Whoso hadde the hood sholde han amcndes of the cloke.
Tho risen up in rape and rouned togideres,
And preised the penyworthes apart by hemselve.
[There were othes an heep, for oon sholde have the werse];
Thei kouthe noght by hir conscience acorden in truthe,
Til Robyn the Ropere arise the[i by]sou[ght]e,
And nempned hym for a nounpere, that no debat nere.

(Clement the Cobbler cast off his cloak,
And at the new fair offered it for sale.
Hikke the Hackneyman obtained his hood after,
And asked Bette the butcher to be on his side.
There were merchants who chose these goods to assess:
Whosoever had the hood should also have the cloak.
Who rose quickly and gathered together,
And separately assessed it as a pennyworth.
[There was plenty of outcry, for who should have the worse];
They could not by their conscience reach true accord,
Till Robin the Roper was sought and found,
And they named him the umpire, that there would be no debate.).

The word handicap itself appears as late as 1653 in George Daniel’s Idyllia:

Ev’n those who now command, The inexorable Roman, were but what One step had given: Handy-Capps in Fate.

Pepys also mentions this method of betting in his Diary of 18 September 1660:

Here some of us fell to handicap, a sport that I never knew before, which was very good.

The term appears in relation to horse racing in the mid-18th century in the form handy-cap match, in which an umpire determines what weights a horse must carry to create an even match. Such races were run as early as 1680, but the term handicap doesn’t appear until 1754, when it does in Pond’s Racing Calendar:

Rules concerning Racing in general, with a Description of a Post and Handy-Cap Match...A Handy-Cap Match, if for A. B. and C. to put an equal Sum into a Hat, C, which is the HandyCapper, makes a Match for A. and B. which when perused by them, they put their Hands into their Pockets and draw them out closed, then they open them together, and if both have Money in their Hands, the Match is confirm’d; if neither have Money, it is no Match: In both Cases the Hand-Capper draws all the Money out of the Hat; but if one has Money in his Hand, and the other none, then it is no Match; and he that has the Money in his Hand is intitled to the Deposit in the Hat. If a Match is made without the Weight being mentioned, each Horse must carry ten Stone.

By 1883 handicap had become a noun, meaning the additional weight a superior horse would carry, and was also generalized to mean any additional burden. From Edward Pennell-Elmhirst’s The Cream of Leicestershire of that year:

Two minutes at such a time is...a heavy handicap on the efforts of hounds.

This sense of burden was what gave rise to the application of the handicap to those that are mentally or physically disabled. They metaphorically carry an extra burden. From a caption of an illustration in L.D. Wald’s 1915 House on Henry Street:

The Handicapped Child.

And from the 29 August 1919 School & Society:

There are, of course, other types of mentally handicapped children who should be sharply differentiated.

It is thought, incorrectly, by many that handicap is a reference to begging—passers-by putting their hands with money into outstretched caps. This, as we have seen, is not the origin, but rather is a modern attempt to make sense of the word long after the original betting sense has been forgotten.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library)

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