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Why Did ‘Disabled’ Replace ‘Handicapped’ As the Preferred Term?

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Handicapped, as used to describe people with disabilities, is a term that rose and fell with the 20th century. It arrived on the scene in the late 1800s as a way to talk about a range of disadvantages — one could be economically, socially or even morally handicapped by circumstances.

The term was borrowed from the racetrack, where a horse that was stronger, faster, or otherwise superior in some way could be given a handicap (a weight, a longer distance, a later start) to equalize the chances of the competitors. Initially, parties to such matches agreed to the conditions of the handicap by placing their hands into a cap and either pulling out or leaving cash stakes they had placed there. This idea of “hand in cap” is where the word first came from.

Handicap began to be applied to physical and mental differences in the early 1900s, when the new fields of sociology and social work started looking at people in terms of their place in society as a whole. What had been seen before as individual failings or flaws were recast as disadvantages with respect to larger contexts. If life was a horse race, a person with a physical disability couldn’t compete as well because of the burden they had been handed, not because they were defective by nature. Over the next decades, old words that cast disabilities as personal flaws—crippled, lame, imbecile, invalid etc.—became increasingly offensive sounding, and by the 1970s, handicapped had become the term of choice in social services and legislation.

Things started to change at just that time with the birth of the disability rights movement. A community of people fighting for more independence and self-determination rejected the term handicapped in favor of disabled. This seems counterintuitive, since, at first glance, handicapped looks like the more enlightened choice. It replaced other terms that had accumulated centuries’ worth of terrible connotations. And disabled might appear to be one of those terrible terms. Its etymological form means “rendered incapable,” not a very liberating sentiment, and it had a history of being used to describe disabled people going back 200 years before handicapped came on the scene. But for activists looking for a way to refer to their new campaigns and organizations, disability seemed the better choice.

For some, the word handicapped evoked the idea of a beggar with cap in hand, though this was not the original source of the word. And disabled at that time was attractive for its rather cold, clinical connotation, meaning that it lacked euphemism or patronizing attitude, things that were also a problem for terms like special or differently-abled. The main problem with handicapped, though, was simply that it had not been chosen by the people it was supposed to describe.

As journalist and disability scholar Jack A. Nelson wrote, though handicapped appeared to be “in keeping with the disability rights movement’s analysis of the situation—that the individual is okay but society has put him or her at a disadvantage—the term was nonetheless rejected when disabled people began wresting the power of the programs that controlled their lives from social workers and began to run their own programs…if for no other reason that it was a term imposed on them by agencies.”

By the time the American with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the term handicapped had already become fusty and awkward. It was the activists who had fought for the act, and decided for themselves what language to use, who ushered it off the stage as the century drew to a close.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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