Pesticides, language and ‘Doctor Who’. What are pyrethroids?

Doctor becomes her (images©: BBC)

I’m currently writing my PhD thesis in Catalan —and some percentage in English to get the international mention— when they reveal that the actor who will take the lead role in Doctor Who will be, in fact, an actress. Weirdly enough, both facts are closely related.

If you saw the teaser of my first scientific musical two years ago, you know that pyrethroids are pesticides, that they are less toxic than DDT, organophosphorates and carbamates and that they are used in aquaculture —and that I’m not a professional singer. However, as you never saw the whole show, this video has a Shakespearean feel, much ado about nothing. So today I’m introducing these pesticides that you have been eating all your life and have probably applied to your hair unknowingly.

About a century ago pyrethrins, which were extracted from a plant of the chrysanthemum family, were modified to study how their chemical activity changed. Pyrethroids were created. In the seventies, pyrethroids went from household products to agricultural pesticides and started substituting other pesticides. Pyrethroids were more effective, stable but biodegradable and selectively more toxic to insects than mammals.

But pyrethroids are not only used on the crops. They are used to fight parasites in farms and fish farms, to treat lice or scabies and to control malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Now go check your home insecticide; it’s bound to have pyrethroids in it.

So why are language and Doctor Who in this article’s title? As I’m writing my thesis in Catalan, I’ve realised my mother tongue does something weird, unusual and against terminology’s best practices. In Catalan pyrethroids are transgender —not to be confused with transgenic. So the English permethrin in an agricultural context will be a male word (permetrín), while in a farmaceutical context it will be female (permetrina). English has feet that smell and noses that run; we’re entitled to our own excentricities. However, only pyrethroids that in English end in -in are transgender, others, e.g. fenvalerate, don’t change.

It bugs me [bugs and pesticides; see what I did there?] that when I talk about the compounds as molecules or when I discuss different applications in my thesis there will be no or both contexts involved. And you can’t go changing pesticides’ gender every other paragraph. It bugs me square that, maybe influenced by Spanish, which makes them always female, in my laboratory we’ve always used them in female form in Catalan. I might have to go back and amend some texts.

Depending on the context, pyrethroids can change gender in Catalan

Which brings us to Doctor Who and the recent announcement of the new Doctor. After 54 years and 13* male incarnations, Doctor becomes her. Sadly enough, myriads of haters (both men and women) find it outrageous that a 2000-year-old alien who changes his body periodically is going to include his genitals in the next change. On the other hand, we’ve never been told what’s down there so, who knows?

Long story short, I write a blog to look modern and fashionable and there’s nothing more modern and fashionable than respecting the gender change of any person, character or pesticide.



* Disclaimer for trolls die-hard fans: I am obviously counting the War Doctor, but not the Metacrisis Doctor as that is a deviation that doesn’t lead to the current incarnation.

‘No fotis!’ – Catalan-English slang dictionary

PONS Idiomas. No fotis! Barcelona: Difusión Centro de Investigación y Publicaciones de Idiomas, 2010.

‘It includes words that don’t appear in conventional dictionaries or textbooks, because they’re taboo, politically incorrect or recently invented.’

Catalan and English as spoken in the street

Catalan and English as spoken in the streets

Indeed, No fotis! is a Catalan-English and English-Catalan bilingual dictionary of slang and vulgar speech. It’s good that someone takes their time to collect these words and expressions and share them—although they charge for it, but they need to eat too. This is a dictionary you’d use on an Erasmus or on crazy holidays, as that vocabulary wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Useful for a Saturday night, not so much for Monday morning.

Finding equivalents for slang in two languages is far from easy and sometimes you can only provide a translation in standard register, a definition or a close-enough-but-not-quite term. That’s when I might differ from the choice of the authors, who still deserve a lot of credit for the hard work and the proper equivalents. Therefore, I do recommend this book.

On the other hand and being pernickety, there are some flaws. The currency of slang vocabulary is always tricky since this register evolves rapidly. How can’t you doubt a product that mentions Messenger in its examples? How many people over 18 used it in 2010? It is complicated to publish a dictionary of so changing a part of language on a so steady support as paper.

Originality was prioritized over linguistic or terminological rigour. It being a dictionary, it’s unforgivable to mix genders in a sentence with two he, one him and two her referring to the same person—and repetition smells funny—, or to read ame instead of the obvious anem (Catalan for we go, required in that sentence). Also, both halves are not coherent or parallel or complete. Regarding breasts, there’s only jugs in English with tetes, mamelles and metes as equivalents. However, there’s only tetes in the Catalan half with knockers and jugs. Even so, the book is still enlightening and worth it.

Finally, should you own a phone in more than two colours—unlike me—, it’s available on iTunes.