The Real Meanings Behind Dinosaur Names

Insightful linguist Rob Watts of RobWords explored the origins behind the naming of dinosaurs and what those names actually mean. He first explains that the word “dinosaur” translates to “terrible lizard”, which sounds about right.

First thing’s first, what is a dinosaur? Well, etymologically speaking, dinosaur is made up of two parts from Greek meaning terrible and lizard. These are “terrible lizards”. And that’s not terrible as in, you know, “rubbish”. They’re not rubbish lizards, but more like “terror inspiring”.

He also cites, with help from paleontologist Cassius Morrison of London’s Natural History Museum, the etymology behind a number of these terrible lizards, noting that much of the nomenclature comes from the main traits of the prehistoric animal. Like the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Following the branch of the lizardy-legged saurischians we find the fearsome theropods – whose name means “beast feet”. Theropods are the dinosaurs that include Tyrannosaurus Rex, velociraptor and birds, they’re characterised by having three digits on each of the limbs.Tyrannosaurus Rex is literally the tyrant lizard king.

The theropod family also has a crafty raptor element, as so named.

Theropods also include the raptors. These prehistoric pilferers have a name meaning “thief”. You have the egg thief, the cruel thief, the graceful thief and of course the speedy thief, the Velociraptor. …But the Velociraptor is by no means the only misunderstood member of the family. I mentioned Oviraptor earlier – the egg thief – that’s ovi like ovum or ovary. …And also, Gallimimus. The galli bit comes from the Latin for chicken and the mimus has the same root as the word mimic. This is the chicken-mimicking dinosaur.

In other words, which came first, the egg thief or the chicken mimic?