The Grammarphobia Blog

Crippled, handicapped, disabled?

Q: When did it become insulting to call someone crippled rather than handicapped or disabled?

A: Of the three words, “crippled” is by far the oldest, with roots going back to Anglo-Saxon times.

The adjective “crippled” has been in use since before 1300, and the noun “cripple” since about 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But another adjective, “lame,” which we wrote about last year, is even older, dating back to around 725, though it’s not heard much today in reference to people.

The OED doesn’t say exactly when “cripple” and “crippled” were first considered insensitive and their use discouraged. And we can’t tell from the published examples cited in the dictionary.

But it’s safe to say that these words began to be replaced in the 20th century—first by “handicapped” and “person with a handicap,” and later by “disabled” or “person with a disability.”

Lately, even “disabled” and “disability” have been criticized by some as negative words that emphasize what people can’t do, rather than what they can. So usage is still changing.

While we can’t precisely pin down dates for these shifts in sense and sensibility, we can pin down a few etymologies.

“Cripple” has similar-sounding relatives in other Germanic languages, all of which have prehistoric roots in a word stem that’s been reconstructed as krupilo-, from the verb kriupan (to “creep”).

As the OED explains, the connection to “creep” may be explained “either in the sense of one who can only creep, or perhaps rather in that of one who is, in Scottish phrase, ‘cruppen together,’ i.e. contracted in body and limbs.”

“Handicap” and “handicapped” were terms used in games and sports long before they were used to refer to disabilities.

They can be traced to “hand i’ cap” (that is, “hand in cap”), an expression originating in the mid-17th century and referring to a game of chance in which forfeit money was put into a cap.

“Handicap” was first applied to horseracing in the mid-18th century. In the sporting sense, it means a disadvantage (extra weight, strokes, or some other condition) imposed on a superior competitor in favor of an inferior one to equalize chances.

“Hence,” the OED says, in the 1890s a handicap came to mean “any encumbrance or disability that weighs upon effort and makes success more difficult.”

But it didn’t specifically mean a person’s physical or mental disability until the early 20th century. The adjective “handicapped,” the OED tells us, was first used this way in 1915.

“Disabled” has been around since the late 16th century in the general sense, defined by the OED as “rendered incapable of action or use; incapacitated; taken out of service.”

While “disabled” has been used since the 17th century in reference to people’s physical and mental capacities, it didn’t replace “crippled” and “handicapped” until modern times. As the OED explains:

“The word disabled came to be used as the standard term in this sense in the second half of the 20th cent., and it remains the most generally accepted term in both British and North American English today. It superseded outmoded, and now frequently offensive, terms such as crippled, handicapped, etc.”

We should mention, however, that not every disabled person considers the term “crippled” insensitive.

For example, Bill Veeck, the owner of several major league baseball teams from the mid-1940s to the early ’80s, didn’t.

Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, gave one of the chapters in his book Veeck as in Wreck this title: “I’m Not Handicapped, I’m Crippled.”

Check out our books about the English language