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Etymology of "handicapped"

By Matt Sepic, KWMU

St. Louis –

A story we ran Monday morning got the origin of the word "handicapped" wrong.

Advocates for people with disabilities say the term is offensive, and they want it removed from Missouri state laws about parking spaces.

The head of one advocacy group told us "handicapped" has its origins with beggars who collected coins with a cap in hand, but several careful listeners told us that's not the case.

We called Ammon Shea to set the record straight. He's the author of Reading the OED, about the Oxford English Dictionary. He said the true origin of "handicapped" is in a 17th Century betting game called "hand-in-cap." The term evolved to include horse racing and other contests, where stronger contenders had to carry extra weight.

While some people may have the wrong idea about the word's history, Shea said it's still offensive to those with disabilities.

"I don't think you can do away with the offensive content of a word by simply saying you're wrong about the etymology,'" Shea said. "On the other hand, I think that often people get the wrong idea about what a word means based on where they think it comes from."

Groups that advocate for disabled people admit there are more important issues than language on parking signs, but they still hope the legislature will eliminate the word "handicapped," regardless of its roots.


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