Printable Version
Pronunciation: pai-kê Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: A craving for unusual foods without (obvious) nutritional value, including a craving for non-foods, such as clay, paint, or wood.

Notes: Pica is a lexical orphan with no derivations or variations, not even a plural. It refers to abnormal or unusual eating patterns. In parts of Africa, the rural US South, and India, pregnant women are known to develop cravings for clay, possibly as a result of iron deficiency. Poor urban children are known to suffer from pica for paint chips. Pica is the term for a catalog of "phagies": geophagy "eating of clay or dirt", trichophagy "eating of hair", xylophagy "eating of wood", among others.

In Play: Today's Good Word usually refers to an abnormal craving for things nonnutritional: "Dolly Salvador chewed on her pencils so much, we began to suspect she has a case of pica for wood." However, we need to stretch the sense of this word but a pinch to make it fit cravings that are simply unusual: "During her pregnancy, May O'Naise developed a case of pica for ice cream garnished with dill pickles."

Word History: Pica is the Latin word for "magpie". The association of an eating disorder with magpies results from the bird's proclivity for collecting odd objects unrelated to eggs in its nest. The pie in magpie comes from the French descendant of pica, pie "magpie". We also find it in piebald "spotted (black and white)", originally "magpie spotted" from the coloration of the magpie. The "mag" in magpie came from the nickname for Margaret, Mag, short for Maggie. The association of nicknames with birds is long-standing in English; compare Mag pie with Jenny wren and Tom tit (now simply tomtit). Wondering about pie as in apple pie? It probably originated in the English word pie "magpie", too, since the first pies were pastry shells filled with chopped meat and mixed vegetables, again suggestive of the mixed oddities found in a magpie's nest. (We are grateful for Barbara Grace's lexical pica for unusual words such as the very Good Word she suggested for today.)

Dr. Goodword,

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