Word of the Day: Pica

In the past we have taken a look at two amusing curiosities of the English language: Foley and Pharlapsicus. Today we will look at a similarly vexatious, but diverting vocable: Pica. The word pica has two very common and proper but very divergent meanings. In this brief lesson we will look at both, but the most important lesson for today is that you must not mix up the two meanings of pica. The first meaning of pica is a unit of measurement used most often in the design and print industries. Each pica is equal to exactly 12 points, no more, no less, although the size of a pica in inches may be 0.177638, 0.166044, or 0.166666 (repeating) depending on the context. Most often it is the latter figure. If you have not worked as a printer, typesetter, or graphic designer you may not be very familiar with picas, but if you have typed a document in a 12-point font you have in fact made use of the pica/points measuring system. Of course, if you are a devotee of the history of typewriters, most of the above will seem comical! Pica is also the name of a disorder where the sufferer has a persistent urge to eat non-food items. A patient with pica finds themselves craving and attempting to consume objects that are completely inappropriate. Examples of things that might look like the most delicious sweetmeats to a person with pica include carpeting, soil, or mouthwatering anthracite coal. In some cases pica indicates a mineral deficiency and may clear up with the deficiency is addressed, while in other cases it is associated with a developmental disorder. Do not underestimate the repercussions of crossing or conflating the the two definitions of pica. If you work regularly with developmentally disabled adolescents, and you see "pica" listed in a client's records, do not assume that the client will be a fraction of an inch tall. If you do so, the accommodations you prepare for them will be gravely inadequate, they cannot use such a tiny chair for sitting! If you are working in a major metropolitan newspaper, and overhear an editor saying "There should be 2 pica in this gutter," do not look about for two people ensconced in an arroyo, happily shoveling handfuls of soil into their earthen-stained mouths. You will not find them. Few, if any newsrooms contain ditches, let alone ditches of sufficient size for two human beings. Your eyes have begun to wander. Perhaps I have not made myself clear. Stop this quixotic search, do not call out or wave to them, they are not there. They will not smile to you through loam-sullied lips.

  1. Mmmm Dirt

    January 1st, 2007 at 5:53 am

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