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 sport, including 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 sense. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, 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. But for a large part of this century the word has been closely linked with physical and mental handicap, though this use, in Britain at least, is now considered dated, and to some people possibly even offensive. 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 it is usually best to find another word.