A contraction of hand in cap, the word handicap dates back to the mid-17th century, and was originally the name of a betting game in which players put forfeit money in a cap or bag and then drew from it.


The game was described by J. S. Coyne in Notes and Queries, dated 23d June 1855:

handicap 1

handicap 2

handicap 3 


This betting game is very old. For example, it was mentioned under the name of newe feire (= new fair) by William Langland in The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, written in the late 14th century. In the following passage from Passus V, Hikke the hostler traded his hood for the cloak of Clement the cobbler. Robyn the ropemaker, as umpire, declared Hikke’s additional obligation to Clement to be a cup of ale. Had either refused, he would have forfeited a gallon of ale:

Clement the cobbler cast off his cloak

And named it for sale at the ‘new fair’ game.

Hick the horse dealer heaved his hood after

And bade Bart the butcher be on his side.

There were chapmen chosen the goods to appraise;

Whoso hath the hood should have amends for the cloak.

Two rose up quickly and whispered together

And priced these pennyworths apart by themselves.

They could not in their conscience agree on a value,

Till Robin the roper arose for the truth

And named himself umpire to avoid a debate

And to settle this business betwixt them three.

Hickey the hostler he had the cloak,

In covenant that Clement should the cup fill

And have Hick hostler’s hood and hold himself served;

And whoso sooner repented should arise after

And give to Sir Glutton a gallon of ale.

(Original text at the end of this article)


One of the first uses of the word handicap is in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, on Wednesday 19 September 1660:

Here we were very merry and had a very good dinner, my wife coming after me hither to us. Among other pleasures some of us fell to handycapp, a sport that I never knew before, which was very good.


The description of the “sport” played by Samuel Pepys is given in Tavern Anecdotes and Sayings (1875), by Charles Hindley:

Handicap: A game at cards not unlike Loo, but with this difference: The winner of one trick has to put in a double stake, the winner of two tricks a triple stake, and so on. Thus: If six persons are playing, and the general stake is 1s., and A gains three tricks, he gains 6s., and has to “hand i’ the cap” or pool 3s. for the next deal. Suppose A gains two tricks and B one, then A gains 4s. and B 2s., and A has to stake 3s. and B 2s. for the next deal.


In the 18th century, the term handicap match came to be applied to a match between two horses, as the following document explains:

handicap match 

Such matches are recorded as early as 1680, but the term handicap was applied to them only in the mid-18th century.


By the late 18th century, a handicap race, or simply a handicap, was a race with more than two horses and without a betting game about the umpire’s decision: a handicap had become a horse race in which an umpire (the handicapper) decrees what weights have to be carried by the various horses entered, according to his judgment of their merits, in order to equalise their chances.


In the 19th century, the term handicap broadened out to any contest in which inequalities are artificially evened out, and transferred to the disadvantage imposed on superior contestants – whence the main modern meaning disadvantage, disability.





Handicap is an exception to the rule that you only double the last letter when adding -ing or -ed to a word ending in a vowel plus a consonant if the stress is at the end of the word.

In this case, the stress is at the beginning of the word (ˈhandɪkap), but you should still double the p: handicapping, handicapped.





The English noun handicap entered French as early as 1827, in the sense of a handicap horse race, and the French word later took the various meanings of the English one.

The French noun handicap is masculine (un handicap) because the last letter is a consonant (-p).

The French verb is handicaper – with one p.

French purists insist that the h- is aspirate, which means that no liaison should be made with the preceding word: according to these purists, one should say le handicap and not l’handicap, and not pronounce the -s of les in les handicaps.




Peter HammillHandicap & equality

from the album pH7 – 1979 

click on the arrow for music




William Langland’s original text


Clement the Cobelere caste of his cloke,

And at the newe feire nempned it to selle.

Hikke the Hakeneyman hitte his hood after,

And bad Bette the Bocher ben on his syde.

Ther were chapmen ychose this chaffare to preise:

Whoso hadde the hood sholde han amcndes of the cloke.

Tho risen up in rape and rouned togideres,

And preised the penyworthes apart by hemselve.

Thei kouthe noght by hir conscience acorden in truthe,

Til Robyn the Ropere arise the[i by]sou[ght]e,

And nempned hym for a nounpere, that no debat nere.

Hikke the Hostiler hadde the cloke

In covenaunt that Clement sholde the cuppe fille

And have Hikkes hood the Hostiler, and holden hym yserved;

And whoso repented rathest shoulde aryse after

And greten Sire Gloton with a galon ale.

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