Handicap – it refers to both an equalization of competitors in a race or contest and, more recently, to a physically-challenged person. But where did this odd word come from, and how did it come to be used for so-called physical disabilities?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 18th century a game of chance was popular wherein two competitors each offered an article of some value that they thought the other might want. An umpire decided the value of each, and the person offering the less valuable item would also have to offer some money to bring it up to a value equal to that of the other item. The two, along with an umpire, then deposited forfeit money into a hat. The competitors each reached in and either drew out money or came up empty-handed to indicate their acceptance or rejection of the swap. If both agreed to the terms, all of the money was taken by the umpire and the swap was made; if neither agreed, the umpire again kept the forfeit money but no swap was made. If only one agreed, he alone was entitled to the forfeit money but no swap was made.
So what does all this have to do with the word “handicap?” The game was called “hand in cap,” eventually shortened to “hand i’ cap.” Since it involved an equalization of two different items, it came to be associated with horse-racing wherein a slower horse was made to be more competitive with a faster one by “handicapping” or burdening the faster one. Out of this usage, we can see where the term came to be generally applied to a physical disability.