Etymology of Handicap

Updated: Jul 9

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the meaning of words has changed over the course of history.

Golfer hitting a drive off the tee

Let’s take the word “etymology” as an example. “Etymology” derives from the Greek word etumos, meaning “true.” Etumologia was the study of words’ “true meanings.” This evolved into “etymology” by way of the Old French ethimologie. That’s all fairly straightforward, but there are many, many words in the English language that have unexpected and fascinating origins. Handicap is a good example:


This word originates from the 17th-century English trading game “hand-in-cap.” The game involved two players and an arbitrator, or umpire. The players would present two possessions they would like to trade. The umpire would then decide whether the possessions were of equal value or not, and if they weren’t, would calculate the discrepancy. The owner of the lesser object would make up the difference with money, and then all three participants would place forfeit money into a hat.


If the two players agreed with the umpire’s valuation, they would remove their hands from the hat with their palm open. If they disagreed, they would pull out their hands clenched in a fist. If both agreed or disagreed, the umpire would get the forfeit money, while if one agreed and the other didn’t, the player who approved the transaction would receive the forfeit money.


Over time, hand-in-cap came to be known as “handicap” and started to be used to refer to any kind of equalization or balancing of a contest or game.


The word handicap is still used in many sports today, such as golf and horse racing. Indeed, horse racing was probably the first sport to introduce the term in order to define an umpire’s decision to add more weight to a horse so that it runs equally to its competitors. This notion of being burdened or put at a disadvantage was carried over to describe people with a disability in the early 20th century.

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