I tried different spellings of the words, (because it's quite possible I'm misremembering it, this happened when I was 7) and I discovered that some people call it "pico, fermi, zilch", and still more people replace "zilch" with the word "bagel". But even the most common combination I can find, "pico fermi bagel", only gets around 100 results https://www.google.com/search?q="pico+fermi+bagel"
Am I correctly remembering the name the teacher gave the game? If I'm not, why did someone else refer to a game by that exact name? Is there a canonical name for the pencil-and-paper version of? Why "pico" or "pecos"? Why "foamy" or "fermi"? Is it a reference to Pecos Bill? Is it a reference to Enrico Fermi? If you're going to replace one of the three words, why replace "zilch", the one of the three with an intuitive meaning? Was there a conspiracy to cover up the pen and paper version of the game to keep people from knowing they can play Mastermind for free?
Okay, earliest reference I can find to this terminology is a 1972 mainframe game called "bagels" (or, um, "bagles".) The fact that these terms spread at all is probably thanks to the game's inclusion in a 1975 book called "100 Basic Games".
"Bagel" definitely predates "zilch", and "pico" and "fermi" are definitely the standard spellings. The alternate versions I remember are either a corruption in my memory or a difference that teacher introduced. I find either option unlikely, considering a church on the opposite side of the country from me had kids play a game with a name that exactly matches the corrupted version I remember. Maybe that teacher moved to California and became a pastor.
What's still unclear is why those terms were chosen in the first place, and why it's not more widely known as a pencil-and-paper game. It's a better pastime than tic-tac-toe or hangman
@matt my guess would be bagel = zero, like how "love" in tennis came from French people referring to a zero on the scoreboard as "l'oeuf" (egg). Don't know about the other two. Maybe Pico as in a sharp point, i.e. exactly right?
@robotcarsley Sorry, I got them confused in my original explanation (or the teacher explained them to me backwards). You're probably right about "bagel", I figured it was because it's round like a zero but I didn't know it was already used in tennis
I figure fermi must come from the fermi problem and is used as a word to indicate a good guess https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_problem and pico is probably used to mean a little bit, as in "close but a little bit off"
@matt yeah those sound pretty plausible. If this originated from a university computer department I bet it was already slang among the nerds there.