“Isn’t he cute?”
Elisa Lively was showing us some pictures of a hiking trip in the Rockies. The one at hand was of a round, furry little thing with rounded ears and a small tail. It was playing peek-a-boo behind a rock.
“Is that a pika?” I asked. (I used the anglicized “pie-ca” pronunciation.)
“It doesn’t look like a magpie to me,” Maury commented.
“Yes! No… what?” Elisa said, first to me, then to Maury, then to space.
“Pica is Latin for ‘magpie,’” Maury said.
“This is pika with a k,” I said.
“I see,” Maury said. Or maybe it was “I ‘c‘.”
“Wait,” said Elisa. “Pica with a c is like when I used to eat clay when I was a kid.”
“A compulsion to eat non-food things,” Maury said, “so named because magpies will eat just about anything.”
“They could have named it after goats,” I noted. “Caper or capra. If it had been caper it might have been especially picaresque. Capra seems to me a bit more of a wonderful word, to be frank.”
“Capraphilia?” Maury said macaronically. “Well, that does sound like a kind of pica. But yuck.”
“Pikas do eat their own doo-doo,” I mentioned, “like rabbits. They pass everything through twice.”
Elisa pulled a face. “That’s not why they’re called that, though, is it?”
I waved the suggestion away lightly. “No, with a k it’s from a Siberian language, Evenki.”
“Siberia!” Elisa said. “They get around for such little things.”
“How big is it, anyway?” Maury gestured at the photo.
“About eight inches, I think,” Elisa said. “I didn’t place a ruler for scale,” she added, a rather dry remark for her.
“A pica ruler?” I quipped.
“About forty-eight picas, by the sound of it,” Maury riposted.
Elisa looked at the two of us and then at the photo and appeared to be about to ask for clarification. We didn’t wait. “A pica is a measurement of type,” I said. “One sixth of an inch. There are twelve points to a pica.”
“It was originally a size of type, when they used to refer to type sizes by name,” Maury added. “It seems to have been named after an ecclesiastical directory, which was set in type of that size; the directory in turn was probably named after a magpie, and I don’t know why. Something to do with its colour and appearance, maybe.”
“Well, those magpies do collect,” I said, not really expecting the double pun to be appreciated.
“Yes, they’re not pikers,” Maury tossed in. “Or perhaps they are. And on what pike did you pick this little peeker?”
“It was near Lake Louise,” she said, “back towards Skoki Lodge, actually.”
“Oh, well, that’s suitable,” I said. “There’s a ski run on the back side of the Lake Louise ski area called Pika. You would have passed it on your way to Skoki.” I paused and a little lightbulb went on over my head. I grinned. Neither of my interlocutors were ski racing fans but I didn’t care. “Lake Louise is also where Picabo Street won her first World Cup downhill victory. She won there the following year, too. Not on Pika, though – that’s an easy run.”
“Peek-a-boo Street?” Elisa said, her brow furrowing. “What are you talking about?”
“Spelled P-i-c-a-b-o,” I explained. “The Lindsay Vonn of the mid-nineties.”
Elisa and Maury looked at each other for a moment and then Elisa flipped to the next picture. “Now, this is Skoki Lodge,” she said. “It’s run by this nice guy called Leo Mitzel and his wife, Katie…”
Thanks to Theresa and Alan Yoshioka for suggesting pica.