Many different things will tell you that time is passing and – incidentally -- that you’re getting older.
There are the increasing number of aches and pains when you get up in the morning (and sometimes when you go to bed). There are the sports stars in the news and the parents with strollers that pass you on the street who seem to get younger and younger. Former schoolmates have children that shoot up at high speed and soon give your old friends grandchildren.
One of the more subtle ones is how the meaning or usage of a simple word can alter dramatically through the years.
This occurred to me the other day when I wore my black tee shirt that says “PICA.” In this instance it stands for Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. I earned it doing one of those crazy artistic gestures: reading literature aloud on a street corner to passing vehicle and pedestrian traffic. (I spent an hour reading from Don DeLillo’s White Noise on one day and an hour reading from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man on another.)
A 21-year-old friend saw my shirt and blanched. She told me that pica is the term for an eating disorder in which the victim chooses to swallow indigestible materials such as dirt, metal, sand, or wood chips. It was the first time I’d ever heard of it.
I thought back to what pica primarily referred to when I was a teenager. It was a term in typography and layout, back when printers actually laid little metal slugs next to one another, with a letter on the end of each one, to make a plate of print to run off multiple copies of posters and pages. Those days were coming to an end during my childhood.
A pica measured 1/6 of an inch, or the equivalent of a 12-point letter. Point size has actually become a more common concept since the advent of word processing on computers, which enables anyone to choose and reset type sizes on documents they create themselves.
But I graduated from college just before PCs and Macs flooded university campuses. I typed my college papers on manual and electric typewriters. Back then, there were only two principal forms of typewriters: pica and elite. Pica typewriters put ten characters per inch on the page -- most often in that classic old font, Courier, which looks positively dowdy when it comes out of a laser printer. Elite typewriters could fit 12 characters into an inch, and therefore dozens more words on a page.
When it came time to do my undergraduate thesis, the difference became crucial. My department limited students to a total of 60 pages for their theses, end notes and bibliography included. As I got into the writing, I could see I might want to fit in more text than 60 pages of pica type on my typewriter would allow . . . so I borrowed an elite typewriter from a friend to tap out the final draft of my thesis. I'm sure there were other students who probably preferred a pica typewriter because they didn't have as much to say.
All of this would have been so much easier to juggle – margins, font sizes, and everything else – if I had been able to compose on a desktop computer or laptop, but they simply didn’t exist for ready use at universities until a few years later. By then, pica as a typographic unit would have ceased to be an issue . . . but increasing awareness of anorexia and bulimia had simultaneously raised medical and scientific interest in pica, the eating disorder.
That version of pica has not been subject to much formal research. Researchers think it may be attributable to a mineral deficiency, which the eater tries to make up by consuming materials that contain that mineral. Some scientists believe it might be more of a mental problem -- a form of obsessive-compulsive order. Possibly more as an act of desperation, the condition may occur in more than half of pregnant mothers who live in poverty-stricken African nations.
Being a recovering English major and continuing writer, I mainly wondered how the name came about. Apparently, pica as a term for the disease come from the Latin word for magpie, a bird reputed to eat anything. I don’t know how it evolved as a term for typographical measurement, although it sounds like it relates to the word for “small” in any number of Latin languages.
Anyway, it’s fascinating that the same word can turn up in such divergent applications.