Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Geophagy and Pica


Two people contacted us today in connection with today’s Good Word, geophagy, the eating of dirt. Dr. Lyn Laboriel is a pediatrician and long-time subscriber to our daily words. Today she pointed out that geophagy is very similar to pica, the compusive eating of nonfood substances. Some dictionaries offer them as synonyms. I thought that a mistake and responded to Dr. Laboriel with this:

“Although some dictionaries treat pica and geophagy the same, geophagy is restricted to eating dirt and usually refers to eating clay for mineral supplement (calcium especially) and to relieve abdominal distress. Pica is most often—I believe—associated with mental disorders. They probably have been confused but I think it is useful to keep them separate aimply because doing things to maintain health and doing them because of mental imbalance are so completely different.”

After a bit more research (which I should have done), Lyn responded with this:

“Although PICA can reflect a form of an eating disorder—at least according to the good folks at the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) committee who officially catalog such things—it really does seem to be related in some children to an intuitively perceived nutritional deficiency. What intrigued me about it was that in the case of children it was intuitive rather than culturally taught as it would be in geophagy (or chthonophagy).”

The entry from Dorland’s Medical Dictionary places geophagy clearly as a subclass of pica. DSM-IV has named just about every type of nonfood ingestion:

Dorland’s Medical Dictionary on PICA
pica (pi·ca)
[L. “magpie” (because this bird eats or carries away odd objects)] compulsive eating of nonnutritive substances, such as ice (pagophagia), dirt (geophagia), gravel, flaking paint or plaster, clay, hair (trichophagia), or laundry starch (amylophagia). When seen during pregnancy it is called citta or cittosis. It also occurs in some patients with iron or zinc deficiencies. In children this syndrome, classified with the eating disorders in DSM-IV, is a rare mental disorder with onset typically in the second year of life; it usually remits in childhood but may persist into adolescence.

Both Lyn and I find it fascinating that these practices are common enough to have been named. We only name things we need names for and we only need names for things that recur in our experiences. The discovery of such a large vocabulary for this mixture of practices and disorders comes as a great surprise to this nonspecialist.


3 Responses to “Geophagy and Pica”

  1. Margie Sved Says:

    Great and thanks! The other time that there’s a lot of pica or geophagia (when is it geophagy and when geophagia?)that is OK culturally some places is during pregnancy! And then there’s the bezoar that gets stuck in one’s stomach afterwards, though that’s more often seen by veterinarians than us shrinks!

    Also, my mother, also a doctor, was fond of saying that all kids needed to eat a certain amount of dirt by age 5 to immunize themselves to a variety of things (one of the most common calls to her as one of those few neighborhood moms who was also a doctor was about kids eating dirt).

  2. rbeard Says:

    The interesting upshot of all this is that the medical world has a “phagia” for just about everything outside the food groups that a person or animal can ingest. Eating ice = pagophagia (hey, wait! Isn’t water a food?), eating dirt = geophagia, eating hair = trichophagia, and eating laundry starch=amylophagia. “Pica” seems to be the class of all these behaviors and “geophagy” one species.

  3. Vickie Sadorsky Says:

    Hi could you tell me if there could be a link to P.O.E.M.s syndrome and geophagy.I have very recently lost a family member to POEM’s and just found out she liked to eat dirt.Is it possable when she ate the dirt it could have been contaminated with something that causes POEMs.Thank you,just a thought.

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