What Does Dinosaur Mean?


Photo: ALLVISIONN via Getty Images

You most likely learned the word "dinosaur" for the very first time while watching a cartoon, a film, or a program geared at children. Dinosaurs were among the most extraordinary beasts ever to have lived, and our fascination with their fossils shows no sign of dimming. They are among the most well-known life forms in existence, but their name is not made up! Continue reading to learn what the term "dinosaur" means.

What Does The Word Dinosaur Mean?

The common belief is that the name "dinosaur" comes from the Greek words deinos, meaning "terrible," and sauros, which means "lizard." When put together, they form the name deinosaurios, from which the English word "dinosaur." was derived. What this means is that the literal translation of dinosaur is "terrible lizard."

However, deinosaurios — and dinosaur, for that matter — doesn't exactly mean "terrible lizard." It was originally named to mean "fearfully-great lizard". When we uncovered the proof of prehistoric life, scientists and experts tried to convey the feeling of coming face to face with the beasts that owned these magnificent fossils. 

It was named using the superlative form of deinos, which means "fearfully-great," just like how Homer used it in The Iliad. It lost its true meaning over time and the adjective was simplified to "terrible." 

How Was The Word Dinosaur Coined?


Photo: CoreyFord via Getty Images

It wasn't in one fell swoop that scientists unearthed dinosaurs. Throughout the 19th century, giant skeletal remains were discovered in both the United States and England. A set of what seemed to be enormous vertebrae, a piece of a lower jaw, and several "dagger like" teeth were unearthed in Oxford, England. 

The bones were inspected by a geology professor named William Buckland in 1824, and the resulting species, Megalosaurus, got its name by combining the Greek words for "great" and "lizard," which are "megas" and "sauros," respectively.

A year later, a doctor called Gideon Mantell examined the bones and teeth of a second reptile that had been extracted from sandstone in an adjacent Sussex woodland. The teeth resembled those of current iguanas in many respects, including their serrations, frequent wear from gnawing, and overall form. The monster was dubbed Iguanodon by Mantell. 

In 1833, he described yet another reptile, the armor-clad Hylaeosaurus, which translates to "woodland lizard."

Naturalist and paleontologist Sir Richard Owen had a significant epiphany after examining the three specimens together. Unlike modern reptiles, Megalosaurus and Iguanodon seemed to have merged the five vertebrae at the base of their backbone. 

Owen theorized that this must also be true of Hylaeosaurus, providing a common thread throughout the three mysteries.

He detailed his findings in the 1841 volume of the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, writing, "The combination of such characters... altogether peculiar among Reptiles... all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria."

How Do Individual Dinosaurs Get Their Names

Most professional paleontologists never get to choose the name of their own dinosaurs. In reality, the average paleontology Ph.D. candidate devotes most of their time to cleaning fossils coated with encrusted earth, making it a fairly anonymous and laborious profession. 

But when a field worker eventually finds a brand-new dinosaur, and gets to give it a name, that's when they truly get to shine.

Some Dinosaurs Are Named After Places

Dinosaurs may take their names from the locations where they were first unearthed. For instance, scientists named the Utahraptor and Denversaurus dinosaurs after their respective states. Albertosaurus was discovered in Alberta, Canada, whereas Arctosaurus was discovered close to the Arctic Circle.

Similarly, Muttaburrasaurus was unearthed in Australia's Muttaburra region. Huayangosaurus was discovered near Huayang, China.

Gage Beasley's Huayangosaurus Dinosaur Soft Stuffed Plush Toy

Other Dinosaurs Are Named By Their Prominent Features

The majority of dinosaurs have descriptive names. When naming a new species of dinosaur, scientists frequently turn to terms with Greek or Latin roots that convey some aspect of the dinosaur's characteristics.

The name Triceratops, for instance, means "three-horned head/face," which is a very accurate depiction of a Triceratops. Similarly, Gigantosaurus means "gigantic lizard", which is fitting due to its monumental size.

Iguanodon is characterized by its iguana-like teeth. Pachycephalosaurus was given that name because the scientist who first identified it thought it resembled a lizard with a thick skull. The Greek words for "thick," (pachy) and "head" (cephale), and "lizard." (saurus) form its name.


Some Dinosaurs Get Their Name From People

Dinosaurs are seldom named after persons, which may be due to the collaborative nature of paleontology and the reluctance of its professionals to draw attention to themselves.

However, several of history's most illustrious researchers have been given dinosaur names in their honor; Othnielia, for instance, is a tribute to Othniel C. Marsh. 

Rather than being a dinosaur who drank too much, Drinker was named after Edward Drinker Cope, a rival of Marsh's in the fossil hunting world of the 19th century. Some of the other "people-saurs" have humorous names, such as Piatnitzkysaurus and Becklespinax.

Leaellynasaura, found in Australia by a married paleontological couple in 1989, is probably the best-known people-saur ever discovered.

They called this little, kind ornithopod after their young daughter, marking the first time a kid had ever been celebrated in a dino version. Then they did it again a few years later with Timimus, an ornithomimid dino christened after the husband in this legendary duo.

There are also dinosaurs named after celebrities, like the Mick Jagger Dinosaur. 

Scientists who discovered fossils of Jaggermeryx naida, also known as Jagger's water nymph, in Egypt named it after the musician because it resembled him in appearance, specifically its large lips. They discussed giving it Angelina Jolie's name, but in the end, they decided on Mick Jagger's honor because they were such big Rolling Stones fans.

The Weirdest Dinosaur Names

Dinosaurs with silly names can find a home in paleontology halls, provided they don't offend anyone. The most well-known case in point is the Irritator, so named since the paleontologist responsible for recovering the fossil was experiencing an especially irritable day.

A newfound horned, frilled dinosaur was lately dubbed Mojoceratops (from the "mojo" in the idiom "I've got my mojo flowing"), and we shouldn't miss the renowned Dracorex hogwartsia, nicknamed after the Harry Potter series by young visitors to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

What Happens After A Dinosaur Gets Its Name?

All scientific names, whether for living or extinct creatures, must adhere to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

According to the rules, a scientific name must have at least two elements. The genus (the first half) is always capitalized, but the specific epithet (the second portion) is never capitalized. Italics are used consistently for both names, and shortened forms of the genus name are occasionally used (as in T. rex for Tyrannosaurus rex). It is sufficient to use the generic name when referring to all species within a genus.

In scientific writing, dinosaurs are often referenced by their genus and species names. In the case of Ceratosaurus, for instance, you may choose between C. nasicornus, C. dentisulcatus, C. ingens, or C. roechlingi, to name just a few species. Though lay people may get by with just "Ceratosaurus," paleontologists often refer to both the genus and species, especially when discussing specific fossils.



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