Origins of Common Words - Handicap

About the history, origins, and definitions of the common word handicap.


Handicap - When we impose certain conditions in a game or sport to equalize the chances of the competitors, we return to a practice common in the Middle Ages and first described in Piers Plowman. In "hand-i'-cap," as colloquial speech would have pronounced "hand-in-the-cap," two persons who wished to exchange items of unequal value found a third to serve as umpire, and all three placed loose coins into a cap as a forfeit. The two contenders then put a hand into the cap while the umpire, as rapidly as possible, described the two items to be bartered and decreed the odds which the owner of the inferior item would have to provide for the exchange to be a fair one. The players had to decide instantly whether or not to accept the exchange as described by taking or not taking a coin. At the words "Draw, gentlemen!" each withdrew his hand and opened it to indicate his decision. If both hands contained coins, the exchange took place and the umpire acquired the forfeit, as he also did if both hands were empty and the barter was not agreeable to either party. If but one hand held a coin, the exchange did not take place, but that person acquired the forfeit.

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