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Handicap

Q From Randy Forror: What I’d like to know is how or where handicap was formed? What is a handicap? Does it have anything to do with having your cap in your hand? In other words, why handicap?

A Some people with disabilities dislike handicap because they believe it refers to a person having to beg for alms or go cap in hand for assistance.

In fact, it has nothing to do with having your cap in your hand but a great deal with having your hand in a cap. The first forms of the word were hand i’ cap, or hand in the cap. The original handicap was a gambling game indulged in by sporting gentlemen, especially those associated with horse racing.

It involved three people. Let’s call them Alan, Brian and Charlie and suppose that Alan has a nice gold watch and Brian an excellent thoroughbred horse. Alan decides he would like to have Brian’s horse and challenges him to exchange it for his watch. Brian accepts the challenge and the pair of them agree on Charlie as their umpire.

Charlie produces a hat or cap, into which all three of them put an agreed stake. Alan and Brian put their hands into the cap, out of sight. Charlie extols the relative virtues of both watch and horse and names a difference in value between them, to be paid by the owner of the less valuable item to make it a fair exchange. Alan and Brian then open their hands. If both contain something, usually small change, they indicate Charlie’s price is acceptable and the deal is agreed; if either or both show empty hands, the deal is off.

If the deal is accepted, Charlie gets the stakes. If neither is satisfied — Alan’s and Brian’s hands are both empty — Charlie also gets the stakes. If one accepts but the other doesn’t, the one who has accepted gets the stakes. This sounds complicated and dry but in practice it was anything but. It was common for side bets to be made by those present on whether Alan and Brian would accept or reject Charlie’s valuation.

The term starts to appear in print in the middle seventeenth century (Samuel Pepys is an early user, who wrote in September 1660, “Some of us fell to Handycapp, a sport that I never knew before, which was very good”), though the idea was first recorded in the medieval poem Piers Plowman around the middle of the fourteenth century. Most of the challenges, of course, were for items of much smaller value and indeed the fun was in the contest, not in acquiring something one of the contestants lusted after. The cap or hat was later dispensed with and the contestants just put their hands in their pockets until it was time to show them.

A similar idea was applied to horse racing around the time of Pepys. In a two-horse race, an umpire proposed a weight which the better horse and rider should carry to make the contest equitable; the same rules were followed to decide if the race should be run on those terms. Later, in the eighteenth century, handicapping was extended to races with more than two horses; this was more difficult to work out and the decision about the weights to be carried was made by an umpire without a game taking place.

Some evidence exists that it had early on been used in golf, though the term wasn’t used until the eighteenth century. By the 1840s, handicapping had been extended to shooting, billiards, foot races and other contests. Shortly afterwards the term began to be used figuratively for a person who had been placed at a disadvantage for some reason. It was in the early twentieth century that it was applied to a person with a physical or mental disability, a usage that is now deprecated.

The game continued until at least the end of the nineteenth century. A famous description exists of the latter stages of one. Jack is the umpire and Mr Pacey and Mr Sponge are the contestants. Jack has set a handicapping value and both contestants have taken their hands out of their pockets to indicate that they have made a decision but haven’t yet opened them to show what that is (“sport” here means to display or show):

  “Hold hard, then, gen’lemen!” roared Jack, getting excited, and beginning to foam. “Hold hard, gen’lemen!” repeated he, just as he was in the habit of roaring at the troublesome customers in Lord Scamperdale’s field; “Mr. Pacey and Mr. Sponge both sport their hands.”
  “I’ll lay a guinea Pacey doesn’t hold money,” exclaimed Guano.
  “Done!” exclaimed Parson Blossomnose.
  “I’ll bet it does,” observed Charley Slapp.
  “I’ll take you,” replied Mr. Miller.
  Then the hubbub of betting commenced, and raged with fury for a short time; some betting sovereigns, some half-sovereigns, other half-crowns and shillings, as to whether the hands of one or both held money.
  Givers and takers being at length accommodated, perfect silence at length reigned, and all eyes turned upon the double fists of the respective champions.
  Jack having adjusted his great tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles, and put on a most consequential air, inquired, like a gambling-house keeper, if they were “All done” — had all “made their game?” And “Yes! yes! yes!” resounded from all quarters.
  “Then, gen’lemen,” said Jack, addressing Pacey and Sponge, who still kept their closed hands on the table, “show!”
  At the word, their hands opened, and each held money.
  “A deal! a deal! a deal!” resounded through the room, accompanied with clapping of hands, thumping of the table, and dancing of glasses.

Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, by R S Surtees, 1852.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Jun. 2013

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Last modified: 15 June 2013.