Alternate term for "dinosaur" and alternate names for dinosaurs?
March 13, 2018 5:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing a fiction piece that involves several characters (including a naturalist) encountering dinosaurs before the 1800s. I'd like to be able to have the naturalist come up with his own plausible scientific names for the creatures, as well as to coin a term that would be accepted by the scientific community had Richard Owen not come up with "dinosauria". Unfortunately, I do not speak either Greek or Latin, nor am I a scientist.

I'm sure I could mush some words together into cool sounding terms myself, but I'd prefer to have something that reads a little more true-to-life than whatever I can come up with. So hopefully this might be something that a few MeFites could have a bit of speculative fun with!

In the story they creatures themselves skew more toward the older understanding of dinosaurs because it's a very pulpy piece that's meant to feel a bit retro. I know, I know, I'm part of the problem. But my piece is very much inspired by old adventure stories so I'd like to skew away from our modern enlightened understanding of our feathered friends if possible.

Outside of that, the only two conditions that really matter to me is that it sound plausible and that it doesn't sound too clunky. The actual words themselves that are used as a base are pretty up in the air for me, so if there's a cool-sounding term that means "ancient animals" or "triumphant reptiles" or "fearsome monsters" or "pebble skin" or "lost to time" I'm happy. Really, anything that remotely fits and sounds plausible as a real term!

Additionally, I'd love to have a few names for dinosaurs themselves. I've got a tyrannosaurus, spinosaurus, brachiosaurus, triceratops, stegosaurus, pterodactyl, and plesiosaur in the story.

posted by gregoryg to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Crocodiles were pretty well known and conveniently called crocodiles. I'd be tempted to throw a croco- (or kroko in Greek) on top of whatever second word sounds best to you run through Google translate.

croco birds
croco beasts
croco predators

Or maybe even just croconovis, new crocodile, or crocoformidiblis, scary crocodile?

This could get way dumber more fun with specific dinosaurs. Brontosaurus? Crocopanthera--giraffe crocodile. Stegosaurus? Crocoacri--sharp crocodile. Compsognathus? Crocopullus--chicken crocodile. Etc.

I mean sure, dinosaurs aren't crocodiles but they're also not lizards, so.
posted by phunniemee at 6:14 AM on March 13 [6 favorites]

A naturalist of the time would probably recognize dinosaurs as reptiles, or like a reptile -- The -saur root comes from the greek/latin term for lizard; the word reptile comes from the latin word reptil, which means creeping, because a lot of reptiles either slide on their bellies or have their legs out to their sides so their bellies are low to the ground, so maybe going the other direction, rather than the dinosaur names being {characteristic}saurus, maybe go with repto{characteristic}? Also, what is the naturalist's nation of origin -- they could go with German, or Gaelic, or French -- there's nothing specifically requiring latin for genus names, today a lot of new animals are given pseudolatin-sounding names (see the garylarsoni type of louse), so you can pretty much do what you want by adding an -us or -i or -id suffix as long as it doesn't sound too silly for your characters to say.

Will your tyrannosaurus be a feathered one, like modern science has pretty much determined? Maybe your naturalist, seeing these dinosaurs in their actual, living form would be more likely to recognize them as similar to an avis , than from their bones as a saurus.

Even if you don't know latin or greek, the internet is pretty good at searching for "{word} in latin" and giving you want you're looking for.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:24 AM on March 13

Here's a wikipedia list of latin name components commonly used in naming species, and examples of how they are used. They tend to describe color, texture, geographic location, etc. Have fun also poking through the even longer list of dinosaur genera!

As far as coming up with an alternative name, does your story take place in North America? A huge part of the dick swaggering dinosaur discovery/naming craze was (as with so many things) white North Americans providing evidence of how great their "new land" was. So maybe something like "northern" (boreale-) + "beast" (-therium) = "northern beasts" (Borealtherium). Maybe also Occidentaletherium, "western beast." Someone please call me out if I'm butchering Latin too badly.

Both of these are probably too clunky, but you get the idea. Also, scientists looove whipping out clunky latin names! While I was dressed for halloween at a bar in an area dripping with tropical biologists, a guy came up to me and just said, "Agalychnis callidryas." I stared blankly until I realized he had correctly ID'd me as a red-eyed tree frog.
posted by Drosera at 6:28 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

Perhaps play up their monstrous qualities with a literary base name like Gargantua; "Horned Gargantuan", "Winged Gargantuan", etc.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:57 AM on March 13

They might well think of dragons, so, Draconids. Or they might think of one of the lizardy beings of Greek mythology, so maybe they’d call them Typhons or Typhonia, or Ladonitheres after Ladon.
posted by Segundus at 7:01 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]

How are they 'encountering' the dinosaurs? As real living creatures? Or as fossils? If it's the second, then the determination of species would be way more sketchy than the designations we have today. I'd love to know more context, because this would colour my answer.

I would go back and look at the early lectures of Georges Cuvier, who is credited with first positing the idea of extinction seriously (in a 1796 lecture). His early work on fossils and naming them might give you some forgotten etymological avenues to explore.
posted by 0bvious at 7:17 AM on March 13

This is awesome, all! Thanks so much. Tons of good possibilities so far. For additional context the story takes place in the mid-to-late 1600s, the naturalist and main characters are English (with some secondary characters being a mix of European and Middle Eastern cultures), the naturalist sees these as animals and not monsters (though don't want to rule that out for naming conventions necessarily), the dinosaurs wouldn't have feathers, and the (living and thriving) dinosaurs are discovered on a "lost world" style island in the Caribbean on the way to Haiti.
posted by gregoryg at 7:51 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Also very worth noting then that not all those dinosaurs lived concurrently on the earth. Stegosaurus was long extinct before T-Rex roamed the planet. If you want a 'lost' island of dinosaurs and to not get too pulpy, then chronology is surely relevant. Which era did the dinosaurs come from? Later makes the most sense. In that case stegosaurus - and maybe some of the others - has to go.
posted by 0bvious at 8:05 AM on March 13

Oh no, to be clear I want to get quite pulpy. Perhaps it's best to think of the sort of scientific accuracy I'm going for is to think of this as a story being written around the early 1900s, along the lines of The Lost World or The Land that Time Forgot or Journey to the Center of the Earth.
posted by gregoryg at 8:11 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

These are all a)completely made up and b) taxonomically and linguistically correct

(I'm an ER Physician/Toxicologist. As the latter, I "speak" a language of names of hundreds of latinate names of bacteruia)

1) Megapterae = "big winged"

Musca Megapterae = big winged fly (during the cretaceous, there were dragonflies with 3-foot wing spans)

2) Dracoprolis-- "dragon offspring"

Dracopolis Venatacitum "silent hunting dragon offspring" (could be naturalists' name for ambush hunters)

3) Beccusportae

Naturalists' choice for smartest dinosaurs, as follows: "Beccus" means "bill" (as in a duck) and "portae" means "gates". Why would this fit really smart dinosaurs? --Because they're the "Bill Gates" of their ecosystem

4) Lupimanus Fulmen

Naturalists term for early mammalian species that lived in large packs and relied on individuals to act as lookouts and "broadcast" information--esp regarding predators--via vocalizations. These species would be the progenitors of modern species (meerkats, chimpanzees, baboons, prairie dogs, among dozens of others) that "broadcast" news and information

The logic is even sillier than "Bill Gates"...

Lupi/lupus = wolf
Manus = pack or gang
Fulmen = lightning bolt

"pack of wolves lightning bolt" = CNN broadcaster Wolfgang Blitzer (blitz is German for lightning bolt)
posted by BadgerDoctor at 8:47 AM on March 13

It's too bad they won't have feathers, because otherwise your naturalist would probably call them "reptavids", or "creeping birds". Which I think sounds pretty cool.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:59 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Sixteenth- or seventeenth-century travellers wouldn't have had any concept of deep geological time. So -- to take one of your hypothetical examples -- they wouldn't have referred to dinosaurs as 'ancient animals', because they wouldn't have thought of them as ancient. But they did have a very well-developed concept of 'monsters', which you can explore for yourself in a book like Ambrose Paré's Des Monstres et Prodiges (digitised by Google in a 1628 edition with wonderful woodcut illustrations). If your travellers were classically educated, their first reaction to seeing a dinosaur would probably have been to quote Virgil: 'monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens' (a monster awful, hideous and huge).

You say that 'the naturalist sees these as animals and not monsters'. But that distinction would have been anachronistic in the seventeenth century. Monsters, as Paré says, are outside the ordinary course of nature, but they are still part of nature. Your travellers would have thought of them as 'lusus naturae' (a freak of nature), though they might have been tempted to call them 'lusus diabolica'. They might also have looked for parallels in classical literature, such as Pliny the Elder's account, in the eighth book of the Natural History, of 'great dragons [dracones] in Ethiopia, twenty cubits long' and 'serpents [serpentes] among the Indians, so big that they are able to swallow stags or bulls all whole'.

Also, remember that binomial nomenclature doesn't come in till the eighteenth century. So while it would be tempting to make up a name like 'draco enormidens' (huge-toothed dragon), it wouldn't really be in period. A seventeenth-century naturalist would have built up a longer description out of Latin epithets like 'monstrum bipedes, ungues acres, pelles squamosus, fulvo colore' (a two-footed monster with sharp claws and scaly skin, ash-coloured). A good place to look for suitable descriptive terms would be the discussion of serpents in Conrad Gesner's Historia Animalium, Book 5 (also helpfully digitised by Google in an early printed edition), or, better still, Edward Topsell's 1658 History of Serpents.
posted by verstegan at 10:21 AM on March 13 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the additional context, @verstegan! While I'll probably end up fudging a lot of the details for the sake of storytelling, The History of Serpents looks like a fantastic jumping-off point.

Thanks everyone else, too!
posted by gregoryg at 5:05 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

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