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.

Correct these mistakes for Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and there’s nothing jollier than knowing your vocabulary. Therefore, today we’re learning about two Catalan words that foreigners tend to get wrong.

Now that the tió tradition has gone properly international thanks to Kate McKinnon (see video below), it’s time to debunk the belief that tió means uncle. ‘If you know basic Spanish’ some people say and even write on their blogs ‘you’ll know that tío means uncle’. Well, yes; but we’re talking about a Catalan tradition, hence a Catalan word. Tió—not tío—means log, as Kate explains. And isn’t it obvious? I mean, just look at the bloody thing.

What Kate doesn’t get so right is calling it cagatió. However, there is currently a debate among natives about this issue (trending topic included: #EsDiuTió). As the song to make the tió poo presents starts with ‘Caga tió’, which literally translates to ‘poo [imperative] log’, some use this as the log name and that’s wrong. Conversely, cagatió is indeed a word that means the act of making the tió poo, the event. So you’ll say: On the evening of the 24th we’re doing the cagatió and the tió will poo lots of sweets and presents for us.

It's only Barcelona, BCN or Barna

It’s only Barcelona, BCN or Barna

A not-so-festive issue, but relevant any time a foreigner mentions Barcelona, is what you can call the Catalan capital. Barcelona is the official name, that’s easy. BCN is a well-known and correct abbreviation. There is only one more alternative: Barna, from Bar(celo)na. Barça (pronounced ‘barsa’) is just a name for the football team. So calling the city Barça or Barsa is utterly wrong. Mispronouncing the wrong term and calling it Barca (‘barka’) is even worse, as barca means boat.

So you finally know it and you can sound a bit wiser this Christmas. Now go, deck the halls and don your gay apparel, unless you live in an extremely religious country. Ah, the irony!

Interesting facts about the Catalan language – 2015

Just like last year, the same week of the Diada, the Catalan national day, I want to talk about my language. Here’s a visual selection of the 50 facts about the Catalan situation nowadays published in the InformeCat 2015 by Plataforma per la Llengua.

Adapted from the InformeCAT 2015 by Plataforma per la Llengua

Adapted from the InformeCAT 2015 by Plataforma per la Llengua

Interesting facts about the Catalan language

Tomorrow is going to be the Catalan national day. There’s going to be a demonstration, there’s going to be politics; but I’m here today to talk just about a language. Here’s a visual selection of the 50 facts about the Catalan situation nowadays published in the InformeCat 2014 by Plataforma per la Llengua.

Adapted from the InformeCAT 2014 by Plataforma per la Llengua

Adapted from the InformeCAT 2014 by Plataforma per la Llengua

‘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.

Yet another obvious political and linguistic attack from Spain to Catalonia

Spanish Minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert, has different standards when judging Catalan or Spanish. And if he can harm Catalan economy in the process, what’s not to love?

It’s not the first time that I’ve mentioned the attacks to linguistic immersion at school, a model that ensures the proper preservation of Catalan and which has been validated and praised by Europe. I’ve also told how the Spanish government insists on destroying this model.

No matter that Catalan students get better marks in Spanish than in Catalan in their A levels (see table), some parents fear that their children can’t study in their language and might lose it—fear that minister Wert shares.

A levels marks of Catalan students for both languages

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Catalan 6.30 5.58 5.52 6.15 5.75 6.20 5.99
Spanish 5.62 6.31 6.25 6.55 6.62 6.34 6.43

Minister Wert laughing at (not with) his Catalan counterpart [photo]

Minister Wert laughing at (not with) his Catalan counterpart [photo]

Bear in mind that in the course 2010-11 up to 235 students in Barcelona requested lessons in Spanish. That went down to 48 in 2011-12, 18 in 2012-13 and this last year they were only 7 out of 230,000 students. At Catalonia level, in September 2012 there were 12 out of 50.000 families interested.

That same year in Valencia, in the opposite situation, almost 126.000 kids couldn’t study in Catalan only in primary school (Catalan or Valencian, which are the same, no matter what some say).

Even so, minister Wert’s tried before to push Catalan into the background as an optional subject unnecessary to graduate from secondary school. Needless to say that Catalonia ignores this kind of political schemes, I mean… measures.

But now mister Wert—deliberately ignoring the situation in Valencia—decides to grant the exorbitant sum of 6,000 euros per year to students who attend private schools to study in Spanish in Catalonia. Now that´s a clear attack to Catalan language and economy buying off families in the midst of an economic crisis and cutbacks.

It is sad that our country suffocates in so natural a way our language while 161 universities around the world teach Catalan (5 in Asia, 1 in Australia, 28 in North America, 11 in South America and 116 in 21 European countries). Or is it our country?