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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.

More Words of the Day: Phar Lap and Pharlapiscus

Jason pointed out the potential for embarassment that could be caused when you confuse words that have two or more meanings. Sometimes two words will be different but very similar and one might accidently use the one when they mean the other. This also causes great shame. A common example, which every schoolchild knows, concerns the words Phar Lap and Pharlapsicus. Phar Lap is, obviously, Australia's wonder horse, who won the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932. Then he died a fortnight later. You don't have to be the a wizard of "Oz" to know that (but it helps)! Pharlapiscus (note: this name is so popular, it appears as an external link to a HotBot web search for the term Chalicodoma pluto!) is also a creature, but it is no regular horse! It is an irregular horse, also known as a short-snouted Australian sea horse. Do not underestimate the potential for awkwardness if you mistakenly confuse the two terms. For instance, upon hearing these two terms the inimitable Albert J. Klee chuckled. I wrote this post because I once made this mistake and it cost me my family. Here is an easy mnemonic that will help you remember the difference: "A horse (with legs) runs a far lap around the racetrack and is blessed, but a sea horse who runs a far lap is cursed. Make sure you really slur the word "cursed" or the mnemonic doesn't work. The world is an amazing place full of wonder, don't fuck it up by sloppily confusing words. Note: the words are so similar because one was named after the other, although which came first is an etymological mystery for all time.

Word of the day: Foley

Some people make a point of learning a new word each day. This web site does not teach you a new word each day, but time to time we will point out a fun new word that would make a good addition to your vocabulary.

Today's word is Foley. Foley has exactly two possible meanings, which you should never mix up. I repeat, do not mix up the two meanings of Foley.

The first meaning is sound effects, for a film. When films are shot, it is often difficult or impossible to clearly record sounds and dialog, and often a director will want to add additional sound to emphasize something, to create a mood, or to foreshadow something sinister. This is where Foley comes in. Monty Python's Holy Grail illustrates Foley by banging coconuts together instead of using real horses. If you didn't really pick up the joke before, but just giggled because of the word 'coconuts,' that's okay, it works on many levels.

The second meaning of Foley is a type of urinary catheter. This Foley is inserted through the urethra in order to drain the bladder. A Foley is not a truck; it is a series of tubes. Patients may be catheterized because of chronic urinary tract infection, prostate problems, or during surgery and long periods of recovery.

Do not underestimate how embarrassing it would be to confuse the two meanings of Foley. If you are a nurse in a hospital, and you are told to hook a patient up with a Foley, do not search for a metal sheet that sounds like thunder when shaken. This will only torment the patient, who is already having a hard time peeing and feels like the whole world knows about it.

If you find yourself on a film set in Hollywood and the director asks you to provide Foley for a scene, do not insert a tube into his urethra. What is wrong with you? Why would you even consider doing that? I don't even want to know what you thought the official duties of the Foley artist were when you signed up for this job.