Names have power

My photographer friend Rob recently introduced me to The Inky Fool, a great blog about the English language. The most recent post, Dinosaurs and Tennyson, reminded me of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s famous poem which coined the phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, and which I had completely forgotten features dinosaurs – newly discovered at the time – as evidence that even species don’t last forever, and that one day, humanity itself may die. It’s beautiful, if melancholy.

The Fool also talks about a few dinosaur names, which is something I talked about during the most recent Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour season. See, when you discover a species, you can call it anything you want – so long as you make it sound Latin. It needn’t be real Latin, you can just stick -i or -us on the end, even if you’re using Greek or French or English words. (This is exactly the same rule used by J K Rowling for making Harry Potter spells.) I thought I’d share a few of my favourite dinosaur names, some of which I’ve talked about on the blog before:

  • Seredipaceratops arthurcclarkei – “Arthur C. Clarke, serendipitous horned face”. Serendipitous because the discoverers only realised it was a ceratopsian dinosaur after seeing a specimen in Canada that resembled their new dinosaur. Arthur C. Clarke because some scientists are massive nerds. Note that like many so-called ceratopsians, it quite possibly didn’t have any horns; the only common facial feature among them is the bone frill at the rear of the skull.
  • Sinosauropteryx prima – “first Chinese reptilian wing”. I like this more because it sounds like something you’d put up your nose to stave off hayfever, but also this is the first dinosaur to have it’s colouration in life identified – and it was a ginger. Yeah!
  • Raptorex kriegsteini – “Kriegstein, king of thieves”. King of thieves? Yes please! Though I’d prefer Autolycus from Hercules to Kevin Costner… I also appreciate the species name, Kriegstein: the father of the person who donated the fossil, and a Holocaust survivor, which is poetic: fossils being the only suriviors of the K-T extinction event, the dinosaur equivalent of the Holocaust.
  • Quetzalcoatlus northropi – “Jack Northrop, Quetzalcoatl”. Yes, it is a supreme act of imagination to name a prehistoric huge flying frightening beast after a mythical huge flying frightening beast, in this case Quetzalcoatl, feathered serpent of the Aztecs, patron of learning and knowledge. And eating innocent window cleaners and sunbathers, if terrible 80’s horror cinema is to be believed. John Knudsen “Jack” Northrop was the founder of the Northrop Corporation, an aircraft manufacturer, who wanted to make large aircraft based on Quetzalcoatlus‘ tailless design. We’ve yet to definitively work out if Quetzalcoatlus could fly or not, though, so maybe planes based on it aren’t the best idea; I get images of Howard Hughes in my mind…
  • Stegosaurus armatus – “armoured roof lizard”. The first discovered species of my favourite dinosaur, and though the meaning of the name is a bit naff, I do love the name itself. Stegosaurus, which a good friend of mine shortened to “steg” (she had to, I talked about them all the time). Instantly recognisable, just like their silhouette.

So those are some of my favourites; what are yours?

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