Handicap: advantage vs. disadvantage


Senior Member
Ukrainian & Russian
Nowadays it is to be regarded as the decisive sign of greater culture when anyone possesses sufficient strength and flexibility to be as clear and rigorous in the domain of knowledge as at other times he is capable of as it were giving poetry, religion and metaphysics a hundred paces advantage and entering into their power and beauty.
(Friedrich Nietzsche, "Human, All Too Human", translated by R.J. Hollingdale, # 278)

Today we should consider it the decisive sign of great culture if someone possesses the strength and flexibility to pursue knowledge purely and rigorously and, at other times, to give poetry, religion, and metaphysics a handicap, as it were; and appreciate their power and beauty.
(Friedrich Nietzsche, "Human, All Too Human", translated by Helen Zimmern, # 278)

What aroused my interest here was the fact that before I read these two translations I thought the word "handicap" had only one major meaning, i.e. "a disadvantage". It seems that my OED agrees with me, whereas Collins, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (and supposedly others as well) claim that "handicap" can mean either "a disadvantage" or "an advantage". Zimmern's "handicap" undoubtedly (although, it became clear to me only after having read Hollingdale's translation) denotes "an advantage".

How do you view this word? Do you view it the way OED does, i.e. only as "a disadvantage", or is it completely normal for you to consider it to be either "a disadvantage" or "an advantage" in different contexts? (Although, the context is quite tricky in Zimmern's translation [in Nietzsche's original], isn't it? :))

  • Scholiast

    Senior Member

    Yes, Zimmern has used the word in a slightly unusual fashion, but note that she was aware of this, as she has modified her statement by "as it were".

    The sense here is derived from the application of "handicap" in sporting contexts - usually, golf, horse-racing or (human) foot-races - where different competitors have relative to each other differential (dis)advantages. This is designed to even up the winning-chances of competitors of widely differing abilities. In handicap horse-racing, for example, horses may have to carry weights in addition to that of the rider to slow them down; a golfer with a 9-handicap who "shoots" a score of 80 over 18 holes will be accredited with a "net" score of 71, and will therefore "beat" a player with a handicap of 3 who scores 75, who is awarded a "net" 72.
    In handicap foot-races, some runners may be given a "start" over others, that is, have a starting-line nearer to the finish than others. This is not much done except for example in school sports-days, where pupils of different ages and sizes may be racing together.

    In such cases, a horse, a golfer or a racer may be said to be - in comparison with others - "advantageously" handicapped as well as disadvantageously.

    I hope this helps.
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