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[han-dee-kap] /ˈhæn diˌkæp/
a race or other contest in which certain disadvantages or advantages of weight, distance, time, etc., are placed upon competitors to equalize their chances of winning.
the disadvantage or advantage itself.
any disadvantage that makes success more difficult:
The main handicap of our business is lack of capital.
Sometimes Offensive. a physical or mental disability making participation in certain of the usual activities of daily living more difficult.
verb (used with object), handicapped, handicapping.
to place at a disadvantage; disable or burden:
He was handicapped by his injured ankle.
to subject to a disadvantageous handicap, as a competitor of recognized superiority.
to assign handicaps to (competitors).
  1. to attempt to predict the winner of (a contest, especially a horse race), as by comparing past performances of the contestants.
  2. to assign odds for or against (any particular contestant) to win a contest or series of contests:
    He handicapped the Yankees at 2-to-1 to take the series from the Cardinals.
Origin of handicap
1640-50; 1870-75 for def 8; orig. hand i' cap hand in cap, referring to a drawing before a horse race
Related forms
nonhandicap, noun
overhandicap, verb (used with object), overhandicapped, overhandicapping.
prehandicap, noun, verb (used with object), prehandicapped, prehandicapping.
5. hinder, impede, cripple, incapacitate.
5. aid, assist, help. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for handicap
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • And the pinto, for all his courage, could not meet that handicap and beat it.

    Way of the Lawless Max Brand
  • His imperial intelligence, however, was too heavy a handicap.

    The Man Shakespeare Frank Harris
  • Even Tillie's chicken and waffles failed against this handicap.

    K Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • Lucretia's defeat in the handicap had increased his despondency.

    Thoroughbreds W. A. Fraser
  • I'll give you a brush, if you do, and a handicap into the bargain.

British Dictionary definitions for handicap


something that hampers or hinders
  1. a contest, esp a race, in which competitors are given advantages or disadvantages of weight, distance, time, etc, in an attempt to equalize their chances of winning
  2. the advantage or disadvantage prescribed
(golf) the number of strokes by which a player's averaged score exceeds the standard scratch score for the particular course: used as the basis for handicapping in competitive play
any physical disability or disadvantage resulting from physical, mental, or social impairment or abnormality
verb (transitive) -caps, -capping, -capped
to be a hindrance or disadvantage to
to assign a handicap or handicaps to
to organize (a contest) by handicapping
(US & Canadian)
  1. to attempt to forecast the winner of (a contest, esp a horse race)
  2. to assign odds for or against (a contestant)
Word Origin
C17: probably from hand in cap, a lottery game in which players drew forfeits from a cap or deposited money in it
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for handicap

1650s, from hand in cap, a game whereby two bettors would engage a neutral umpire to determine the odds in an unequal contest. The bettors would put their hands holding forfeit money into a hat or cap. The umpire would announce the odds and the bettors would withdraw their hands -- hands full meaning that they accepted the odds and the bet was on, hands empty meaning they did not accept the bet and were willing to forfeit the money. If one forfeited, then the money went to the other. If both agreed either on forfeiting or going ahead with the wager, then the umpire kept the money as payment. The custom, though not the name, is attested from 14c. ("Piers Plowman").

Reference to horse racing is 1754 (Handy-Cap Match), where the umpire decrees the superior horse should carry extra weight as a "handicap;" this led to sense of "encumbrance, disability" first recorded 1890. The main modern sense, "disability," is the last to develop, early 20c.


"equalize chances of competitors," 1852, but implied in the horse-race sense from mid-18c., from handicap (n.). Meaning "put at a disadvantage" is from 1864. Earliest verbal sense, now obsolete, was "to gain as in a wagering game" (1640s). Related: Handicapped; handicapping.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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handicap in Medicine

handicap hand·i·cap (hān'dē-kāp')
A physical, mental, or emotional condition that interferes with one's normal functioning.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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