On ‘Handicapped,’ Disability Euphemisms, and False Etymologies

The word ‘handicapped’ makes me cringe. Has for as long as I can remember. It just sounds so degrading and dehumanising. And, of course, it’s everywhere; official signs carry it, people use it frequently in common speech, and it’s not uncommon for people to say ‘handicapped’ instead of ‘disabled’ because they think it’s the correct word[1. A note on ‘correct’ words: language evolves quickly. It’s hard to keep up with. Being behind on the terminology of marginalised groups is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when there’s debate within those groups on how they want to refer to, self identify, and present themselves, as there almost always is. So I’m not sneering at people who use this word in an attempt to be respectful.]. Just typing it out, honestly, makes me feel a little nauseous.

Blech. What’s the deal with this word? Why do I hate it so much? Well, it’s a disability euphemism, and I hate disability euphemisms. I hate differently abled, mentally challenged, handicapable, special needs, touched, challenged, less abled, special, non-abled (yes really I have heard this!), and the other myriad and amazing euphemisms I’ve seen people trot out to avoid saying the ‘d’ word. I also hate language like ‘mental disabilities’ for its vagueness; do you mean cognitive, intellectual, or developmental impairments? Do you mean mental health conditions/mental illnesses? What are you trying to say here? (And are you aware that ‘mental disabilities’ ring as a slur to some ears, uncomfortably close to ‘what are you, mentally disabled or something?’.)

Intriguingly, a lot of disabled people hate it not just because it’s a euphemism, but because of a false etymology. It’s widely believed that ‘handicapped’ is derived from ‘cap in hand,’ as in ‘beggars,’ as in ‘disabled people are subhuman members of society forced to beg for an existence.’ Benefit-scrounging scum, that’s what we are, and thus a term like that, well. The hatred is right there in the word.

This isn’t the first or the last case where a word has been attacked on the grounds of utterly false etymology, which I find really frustrating; I like talking about language, I like talking about words, I like looking at how words are used, but I start to get a bit hot around the collar when popular mythology supercedes reality. And when that mythology suddenly becomes the story, it clouds the larger discussion about why the word is a problem. The issue here isn’t about the etymology of handicapped (which I am about to get to) but about the fact that it euphemises and distances disability, presenting itself as something bad that shouldn’t be said out loud.

So. Handicapped. Are you ready for your etymology lesson? Strap in, because it’s a doozy. Our story starts in 1653, when people played a type of lottery game called, at the time, hand-in-cap. The game was a bit complicated, but revolved around two players and an arbiter who negotiated a series of exchanges of items and forfeit money. I could go on, but honestly, every description I’ve read has made my eyes glaze over. Basically, it was a game based on an attempt to make an equal exchange. Eventually the name was shortened to hand i’cap and then just handicap.

About 100 years later, the term popped up in another context: horseracing. In the interest of making races more fair, a sort of referee would study competitors in a field and assign handicaps. If a horse appeared more talented and more likely to win, it would be assigned extra weight to carry. This practice continues to this day, with the handicapper’s goal ostensibly being to ensure that the horses end the race in an even tie. This is of course not what happens, but the playing field is somewhat leveled by having horses carry weight, and it theoretically makes things more exciting for people who are interested in that sort of thing.

In the late 1880s, the word was used in a larger sense as any kind of equalisation, a reference to the idea of handicapping horses taken to its logical extension. A secondary meaning of the term (as handicapping in the sense of equalising a horse race continues) as an impediment or impairment started to evolve, and in 1915 (pretty recently, given the history of the word!), it showed up in reference to disabled children. By the 1950s, it was widely used for all disabled people, and became a common term, showing up in government documentation and other materials; it’s still used officially for things like marking out ‘handicapped’ parking spots. Actually, in that case, the usage could be said to be pretty fair; accessible parking space are indeed intended to equalise things a bit for disabled people.

In examining etymology, I’m always fascinated when cases of false etymology like this arise. It’s difficult to determine when and where people started claiming that handicap originated in ‘cap in hand’ and began associating with with beggars, adding a negative connotation to it. There are some theories that perhaps people retroactively created this mythology in order to add further weight to their efforts to suppress the use of the word; is it possible that in the push to get people to go ahead and say ‘disabled,’ campaigners created a false etymology for ‘handicapped’ that would be easy to explain and use to convince people to stop using it?

Because it’s much, much harder to get people to understand why disability euphemisms are a problem than it is to get people to abandon words that have clearly hateful pasts. People wanting to be sensitive to disability issues certainly wouldn’t want to use a word comparing disabled people to beggars and implying that we’re a leech on society, but they might have mixed thoughts about euphemisms and how they harm us — and as always, it’s worth noting that the problem isn’t as much the language, but what’s behind it. You can stop saying ‘handicapped’ tomorrow, but it won’t magically eliminate harmful ways of thinking about disability.

Image: American Advisors Group, Flickr