October 27, 2021

Words of the Month - Dinosaurs

         The field of dinosaurs includes some of the biggest, most exciting words your average four-year-old is learning, but this joy should not be confined to little kids.  Today we’re going to look at the etymologies and histories of some most excellent dino-related words.
        We should certainly start with dinosaur itself.  The word was coined in 1841 from the Greek roots for “terrible lizard.”  British naturalist Richard Owen came up with the word to describe the group to which several recently-discovered fossil specimens belonged, including Iguanadon (“iguana-tooth,” named in 1825 by Gideon Mantell), Megalosaurus (“great lizard,” named in 1824 by William Buckland, who also coined the word coprolite for fossilized feces), and Hylaeosaurus (“forest lizard,” named in 1832 by Mantell).
        Dinosaur names are probably most people’s introduction to the whole idea of identifying Latin and Greek roots.  Sometimes names are based on people or places involved in a fossil’s discovery, but often they are based on physical properties or other perceived qualities of the animal.  Here are a few that I think are rather interesting.
        Apatosaurus - “deceptive lizard,” named by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1877, based on certain bones that looked more like those of marine reptiles than other dinosaurs.  However, I like the name because I grew up in the era when we called them Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard,” also named by Marsh, but in 1879), and I consider it a sneaky trick to switch the name on us!  (Although apparently now Brontosaurus may be getting its own back again, as a separate genus.  So it seems that Brontosaurus is the deceptive one.)
- “elegant or dainty jaw,” named in 1859 by Johann A. Wagner.  It just strikes me as funny to call a theropod’s jaws “elegant,” even if it is a petite dinosaur.  (Theropod, by the way, means “wild beast foot.”)
        Oviraptor - “egg thief,” named in 1924 by Henry Fairfield Osborn because the first skeleton was found over a clutch of eggs which it was presumed to be preying upon.  However, this is a terribly slanderous name, as it is now known that the eggs were the same species, so the current belief is that this noble dinosaur was guarding its nest even unto death.  Interestingly, Osborn himself was not entirely convinced by the egg-eating theory, even as he bestowed the name, which just goes to show that one should always give the benefit of the doubt.
        Stegosaurus - “roof lizard,” named in 1877 by Marsh.  This is another mistake, as Marsh originally believed that the plates on the dinosaur’s back were arranged like shingles on a roof, rather than standing up on edge.
        In addition, lots of dinosaur names have been inspired by mythology, which is not surprising as dinosaurs certainly seem as fantastical as any imaginary dragon and as mighty as any hero of myth.  Some of the namers have gotten quite clever in their choices, finding referents with specific local and circumstantial significance.  Here are a smattering of examples:
        Achelousaurus - a hornless ceratopsian named in 1995 by Sampson for Achelous, a Greek river god whose horn was broken in battle.
        Anzu - a theropod named in 2014 by Lamanna et al for a feathered demon in ancient Mesopotamian mythology.
        Aorun - a theropod named in 2013 by Choiniere et al for Ao Run, a dragon king from a Mandarin epic.
        Balaur - a theropod named in 2010 by Csiki et al for a dragonoid beast from Romanian myth.
        Citipati - a species of Oviraptor named in 2001 by Norell and Barsbold for wrathful deities that are often portrayed in Buddhist tradition as dancing skeletons.
        Garudimimus - “Garuda mimic,” a theropod named in 1981 by Barsbold for the magical king of birds in Hindu tradition, and the national emblem of Indonesia and Thailand.
        Jobaria - a sauropod named in 1999 by Sereno et al for a giant mythical monster of the Tuareg, on whose land the fossils were found.  (Indeed, it is possible that the myths were inspired by the fossils.)
        Kakuru - an Australian theropod named in 1980 by Molnar and Pledge for one of the names for the “Rainbow Serpent” of Aboriginal mythology, appropriate because the bones of the dinosaur had fossilized as opal - the only known instance of this.
        Mercuriceratops - a ceratopsian named in 2014 by Ryan et al because its skull ornamentation was reminiscent of the wings on Mercury’s helmet.
        Oksoko - a theropod named in 2020 by Funston et al for a three-headed eagle from Altaic myth, because the original group of fossils discovered included three skulls (not, however, all from a single individual.  That would be a dinosaur to see!)
        Siats - a Utah theropod named in 2013 by Zanno and Makovicky for a monster of Ute legend.
        Xintianosaurus - a theropod named in 2019 by Qui et al for a Chinese deity.  XingTian continued to battle even after his decapitation, and the original fossil was missing its head.

        If we allow ourselves to consider other great prehistoric reptiles, there are many more, including:
        Alcione - a pterosaur named in 2018 by Longrich et al for Alcyone of Greek myth, who threw herself from a cliff in grief and was transformed into a seabird.
        Indrasaurus - a prehistoric lizard named in 2019 by O’Connor et al for Indra, who was once swallowed whole by a dragon.  The original fossil of the lizard was found swallowed whole inside the skeleton of a small dinosaur.
        Mauisaurus - a plesiosaur from New Zealand, named in 1874 by Hector for the famous Maori demi-god.
        Quetzalcoatlus - the largest known pterosaur, named in 1975 by Lawson for the Aztec feathered serpent god.
        Simurghia - a pterosaur named in 2018 by Longrish et al for the mythical bird from Persia.

        I will end with two more words that belong in any etymological discussion of dinosaurs:
        fossil - dating from the 1610s, the word originally meant anything dug up or obtained by digging (from French from Latin “dug up”).  Our fossil fuel retains that original sense.  The more specific meaning of “geological remains of ancient living things” dates to 1736.
        thagomizer - the array of spikes on the tails of some dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, the word was coined in 1982 by cartoonist Gary Larson.  Although originally just a joke, the word was adopted by paleontologists and is now an accepted term.

[Pictures: L’Iguanodon et le Mégalosaure, engraving by Riou from La Terre avant le déluge by Louise Figuier, 1863 (Image from Librairie de L. Hachette);

Stegosaurus and Compsognathus in a landscape of araucarias, engraving from De Wereld vóór de Schepping van den Mensch by Camille Flammarion, 1886 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Anzu, illustration from Monuments of Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard, 1853, portraying a Neo-Assyrian wall relief c865 BCE (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Xingtian, drawn by Jiang Yinghao, 17th centurey (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Primitive World, color engraving by Adolphe François Pannemaker, 1857 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, 1982 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]


Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

Thank you for this wonderfully nerdy ride through the Saurusses and their names!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Charlotte!

Pax said...

Cool info. Thanks. Fun to see the progression from just Greek and Latin myths or legends in the 19th century, to more recent reaching out to a wide variety of other cultures' myths and legends.