A couple of articles I’ve come across recently have gotten me thinking about dinosaur names, in particular a pair of (admittedly fluffy) articles on about.com, the “10 Worst Dinosaur Names” and the “10 Best Dinosaur Names“.
It is interesting but somewhat disheartening to see how the public (and even other scientists, to be honest) react to certain dinosaur names, identifying them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. What makes a dinosaur name good or bad?
I would argue that good names include something descriptive about the animal that sticks in your head, and that can be as simple as a location-based name or as complex as a clever word-play about the morphology or behaviour. Personally, I enjoy when new words, languages, or ideas are introduced into the name, things that haven’t been used much previously. There’s a lot of ‘eo’ and ‘giganto’ out there, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I certainly derive enjoyment from something unique. I’m not sure what would make a really bad name…perhaps something deliberately meant to look or sound similar to an existing name, thus causing confusion? Something offensive or rude? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
I am therefore disheartened when I see names considered ‘bad’ because they are too hard to pronounce. You know what? Lots of the dinosaur names are hard to pronounce…if English isn’t your first language. In the “10 Worst” list, Futalognkosaurus (with futalognko derived from Mapudungun) sounds “like a hot dog”, and Piatnitzkysaurus (named after a Russian-born Argentinian palaeontologist) has perhaps the worst writeup: “…the problem is that some paleontologists have cooler names than others.” Yeah. By this logic, people with non-English names have less cool names, and that strikes me as an awfully wrong sort of thing to say or think. I see a lot of complaints whenever a Chinese dinosaur has a (gasp!) Chinese place name, and Zhuchengtyrannus comes to mind. Zhuchengtyrannus is a perfectly fine name. If you’re not sure what to do with the ‘zh’ combination, look it up.
Just as an example, let’s look at the list of names in the 10 worst and 10 best lists and see what languages they’re derived from.
The ten worst:
1. Becklespinax: after fossil collector Beckles (England), spinax is either Latin or Greek
2. Futalognkosaurus: futalognko is from Mapudungun (Argentina), Greek saurus
3. Leaellynasaura: after the collector’s daughter Leaellyn (Australia), Greek saura
4. Monoclonius: Greek
5. Mymoorapelta: from the Mygatt-Moore quarry, pelta from Greek
6. Opisthocoelicaudia: opisthocoel from Greek, caudia from Latin
7. Pantydraco: from Pant-y-ffynnon quarry (Wales) and Latin draco
8. Piatnitzkysaurus: after palaeontologist Piatnitzky (Russia) and Greek saurus
9. Sinusonasus: although I’m not sure, pretty sure sinusoidal and nasus are both Latin
10. Uberabatitan: from Uberaba locality (Brazil), Greek titan
The ten best:
1. Achillobator: from Greek Achilles and Mongolian bator
2. Gigantoraptor: Latin or Latin and Greek
3. Iguanacolossus: Latin
4. Khaan: Mongolian
5. Raptorex: Latin
6. Skorpiovenator: Greek
7. Stygimoloch: Styx is Greek, moloch is Hebrew
8. Supersaurus: Greek
9. Tyrannotitan: Greek
10. Vulcanodon: Greek
I think it’s pretty safe to say that the ‘best’ names are overwhelmingly Greek and Latin, and therefore relatively easy to pronounce by English speakers. I realize that this is a very small sample and perhaps I should not read so closely into it, but it bothers me when I hear people complain that dinosaur names are hard to say just because they are foreign-sounding. Palaeontology is not just for anglophones.
To end on a lighter note, here are a few names incorporating non-Latin or Greek words that I really, really like.
1. Balaur (a dromaeosaur): Romanian for dragon
2. Banji (an oviraptorosaur): Chinese for striped crest
3. Citipati (another oviraptorosaur): Sanskrit for funeral pyre lord, and a character in Tibetan Buddhist mythology
4. Ilokelesia (an abelisaur): Mapuche for flesh lizard
5. Jeyawati (a basal hadrosauroid): Zuni for grinding mouth
6. Kakuru (a theropod, maybe a coelurosaur): Guyani (Australian) name for the mythical Rainbow Serpent
7. Kol (an alvarezsaur): Mongolian for foot
8. Seitaad (a prosauropod): a sand-desert creature from Navajo mythology