"Handicap": An Etymological Excursion

Gracious greetings from your friend and resident bibliophile, Finnian Jones. Throughout my many travels, (both of a geographical and literary nature!) I have made the acquaintance of many words whose origin proves worthy of etymological examination. One such expression which thus arrested my attention is the word “handicap.”

Today you may know that this simply refers to when someone is put at a disadvantage. However, the historical origin of this term dates back to the 1600s when people would play a game called “hand in cap.” This game allowed for the equitable exchange of objects not necessarily equivalent, but nonetheless amenably agreed upon by everyone involved!

The game was played like this. If two people wanted to trade items, but they weren’t worth the same amount, they would choose a third person to help judge how much more money should be paid by the person trading the less valuable item. The two people participating in the trade would first decide upon an amount of money which they would forfeit if either of them disagreed with the third person’s assessment. This money would then go into a hat, or cap, and the third person would announce which item was worth less, and how much additional money would need to be provided to make the trade fair.

After this announcement, both of the people trading would put a hand into the cap, and pull out a coin if they agreed with the trade, or reveal an empty hand if they didn’t think the trade was fair. Hence the name, “hand-in-cap.”

Now here is where things got interesting and encouraged the judge to extend an ethical evaluation of the exchange. As long as both participants agreed that the assessment was fair or not, the judge got to keep the forfeit money. However, if the assessment unfairly favored one of the traders over the other so that one person agreed and the other disagreed, then the arbitrator got nothing and the trade didn’t happen, but the person who agreed to the trade got to keep the forfeit money. This encouraged the judge to provide a price which both participants might be expected to regard as equitable.

Fast forward a few years and the term came to be applied to horse racing, when a judge would put additional weights, known as a “handicap,” on whatever horse he determined to have a natural advantage. It’s from this sense of the word that our contemporary definition is derived.

This historical curiosity is actually reflective of God’s consistent commitment to just judgments and fair contracts. In Proverbs 16:11, King Solomon, the wisest ruler who ever governed, said,

“A just balance and scales are the LORD’s;

all the weights in the bag are his work.”

In all matters of business, trade, economic endeavor, and legal proceedings, God requires a desire for righteousness which should unequivocally inspire us to treat others equitably!

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