Dinosaurs – those prehistoric animals that walked the earth long before humans were a twinkle in evolution’s eye – fascinate many of us. Not only are we drawn to their ‘monstrous’ and otherworldly appearance, we also find their names intriguing.
‘Lizard hips’ and ‘bird hips’
A dinosaur can be any of a large number of reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic era, between 225 and 65 million years ago. They appeared during the Triassic period, survived the Jurassic, and became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. Dinosaurs are classified by palaeontologists into two main groups or orders: Saurischia (‘lizard hips’), which includes the bipedal carnivores and the giant herbivores; and the Ornithiscia (‘bird hips’) which are the smaller herbivores (Philip’s World Encyclopedia, 2008).
Like the fossilized bones that give us clues about these reptiles’ existence and extinction, the names for dinosaurs, when excavated and picked over with a palaeontologist’s (or, in this case, a lexicographer’s) fine-tooth comb, give us insights into how words we use today have developed over hundreds of years.
Fish, earthquakes, and wings: excavating the meanings of dinosaur names
The word ‘dinosaur’ itself comes from a combination of the Greek deinos ‘terrible’ and sauros ‘lizard’. Many of the dinosaur names end in ‘-saurus’ or ‘-saur’, and the first part of the name often gives a clue to the physical characteristics of the animal, based on its meaning in Greek. So an ichthyosaur resembles a dolphin (albeit one with four flippers, and a vertical tail) – the name comes from Greek ikhthus (‘fish’). A pterosaur – from pteron (‘wing’) – is one of an order of flying reptiles with membranous wings supported by a greatly lengthened fourth finger, and probably covered with fur. The pterodactyl is a genus of pterosaur – from pteron ‘wing’ + daktulos ‘finger’. Words beginning with ‘pter’ might look strange to us, but there is one surprising word in today’s English that makes it easy to remember what it means: a helicopter is a ‘spiral-winged’ form of transport – from Greek helix ‘spiral’ + pteron ‘wing’!
A huge late Jurassic dinosaur, probably the longest ever animal with a length of up to 35-45m, and one of the heaviest at up to 100 metric tons, earned the name seismosaurus – literally, ‘earthquake lizard’. And with its massive head sporting two large horns and a smaller horn on its snout, the triceratops is also aptly named: trikeratos ‘three-horned’ + ops ‘face’.
A chatty / loquacious / garrulous / voluble / verbose dinosaur?
There is one word ending in ‘saurus’ that has nothing to do with dinosaurs, or the Greek word sauros ‘‘lizard’: that writer’s favourite, the thesaurus. Not quite as ancient as the dinosaur, the word ‘thesaurus’ is first recorded in the OED from the 16th century, and also originally comes from Greek, thesauros: ‘storehouse, treasure’. A thesaurus originally meant just ‘a dictionary or encyclopedia’, but was narrowed to its current meaning of ‘a book that lists words in groups of synonyms and related concepts’ when Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was published in 1852.