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Q From Ruth Halfon: I would appreciate your help in a small matter of the word handicapped. My esteemed boss says it can only be used in the context of physical and mental handicap. I claim that one can refer to a person who lacks money as financially handicapped, and even venture to suggest that a person with social problems can be called socially handicapped.

A The origins of handicapped go back to the eighteenth century. The first senses were connected with a gambling game, later transferred to the handicapping of horses by adding weights to even out a contest. The figurative senses first appeared in the late nineteenth century, derived from the sporting senses.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, it would then have meant: “any encumbrance or disability that weighs upon effort and makes success more difficult”, which is very much the way you would like to use it and — your boss’s view notwithstanding — is a sense that's still common.

But for a large part of this century the word has been closely linked with physical or mental handicap so your boss is partially correct. However, he is rather behind the times, since this use is now considered to portray a negative image, is insensitive and should be avoided. To some disabled people it is offensive, because of a mistaken view that it refers to their being forced to go “cap in hand” for assistance. The advice from the British Government’s Office for Disability Issues is that terms such as the handicapped and mentally handicapped should be avoided.

It is still feasible to use the word in wider senses (as well as in the original sporting sense, of course), though its connections with disability require care in deciding when to use it, and in those contexts it is usually better to find another word.

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Page created 24 Oct 1998; Last updated 15 Jun 2013