The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Dinosaur’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word ‘dinosaur’ come from, and what does it literally mean? And why is the word ‘dinosaur’ entirely inappropriate for the thing it describes?

Let’s delve into the etymology – or origin – of ‘dinosaur’ to learn why the word was, quite literally, a ‘terrible’ choice of word for the extinct reptiles it names.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that we knew about dinosaurs before we knew about them. It’s something of a myth that the first dinosaur fossils were only unearthed in the early nineteenth century, when fossil-hunters such as Mary Anning (the one about whom the tongue-twister ‘She sells seashells on the sea shore’ was written) began to excavate them along the south coast of England and elsewhere.

In fact, we’ve been digging up dinosaur remains for centuries, even millennia; we simply didn’t call them dinosaurs. For example, an ancient Chinese gazetteer named Huayang Guo Zhi, which was compiled during the Western Jin Dynasty (265–316), documented the discovery of what it referred to as ‘dragon’ bones in Sichuan Province. When ‘dinosaur’ remains were discovered they were usually described as ‘dragons’ or (in Christian countries) as some remnant from the antediluvian (pre-Flood) age.

We now know that dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic (i.e., ‘middle-life’) era, between the Palaeozoic (‘ancient life’) and Cenozoic (‘new life’): they are thought to have arisen around 230 million years ago (give or take a few million years either side: some time after the catastrophic Permian extinction which wiped out many of the dominant species of the time, including trilobites) and 65 million years ago, when they all went extinct – probably after an asteroid crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, causing widespread changes to the Earth’s climate.

It was after dinosaurs went extinct that mammals entered their ascendancy, leading eventually to humankind’s own dominance (for good or ill) at the current time.

It was only in the nineteenth century that dinosaur-hunting really became scientific, or should we say paleontological. Noted palaeontologists such as William Buckland and Gideon Mantell both collected and helped to document the fossils that were being excavated. And it was a noted palaeontologist who coined the word ‘dinosaur’ to describe these prehistoric creatures.

His name was Richard Owen (1804-92), and although he has a reputation for being ruthless – he was supposedly the only man who Charles Darwin hated – he was also the one responsible for inventing the word dinosaur. Having examined the fossilised bones and teeth of the various extinct reptiles which had so far been discovered, and noted similarities in structure between these and modern-day reptiles, Owen wrote, in 1841:

The combination of such characters … will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.

Etymologically, the term dinosaur is derived from Ancient Greek δεινός (i.e., deinos) which means ‘terrible’ and σαῦρος (i.e., sauros) which means ‘lizard’. In this instance, ‘terrible’ means ‘inspiring terror’ or, if you like, ‘so large as to inspire fear’.

However, Owen wasn’t just thinking of the structure of the teeth, claws, and phalangeal bones of the extinct creatures. It’s clear he also intended the dino- of dinosaur to evoke their great size. In fact, we now know that many dinosaurs were far from big, and some were no bigger than, say, a modern-day chicken. (Indeed, birds such as chickens are the closest living descendants to the dinosaurs which were wiped out 65 million years ago.)

So the ‘terrible’ part may not be so accurate. What about the ‘lizard’ bit? Well, technically, and strictly speaking, dinosaurs weren’t lizards either – although they were reptiles and therefore, on some level, related.

But we can’t blame Owen for the ‘lizard’ part of ‘dinosaur’, in any case, for he was merely following the convention that had been established almost twenty years earlier. For Megalosaurus was the first dinosaur to be given a scientific name: a name which means ‘great lizard’. As James Parkinson’s Outlines of Oryctology observed in 1822:

Megalosaurus … An animal, apparently approaching the Monitor in its mode of dentition, &c., not yet described … Drawings have been made of the most essential parts of the animal, now in the Museum at Oxford.

So the teeth (‘dentition’) were a key factor in the dinosaur-lizard connection being made, since it was fossilised teeth that were the most commonly excavated at that stage.

The strange thing was that, even once the word dinosaur had been coined and accepted in scientific circles, many people outside of science preferred to use other, older terms. So Tennyson, in his 1850 poem In Memoriam, refers to dinosaurs when considering the species which have gone extinct, but calls them ‘Dragons’ – coining the phrase ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ in the process:

And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
   Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
   Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
 Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
   And love Creation’s final law –
   Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
 With ravine, shriek’d against his creed –

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
   Who battled for the True, the Just,
   Be blown about the desert dust,
 Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
   A discord. Dragons of the prime,
   That tare each other in their slime,
 Were mellow music match’d with him.

And Dickens, just two years after Tennyson, preferred to refer specifically to a Megalosaurus, rather than the newer dinosaur, when penning the famous opening to his novel Bleak House in 1852:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

Clearly, for Dickens, ‘Megalosaurus’ was still the go-to term to convey the terrible size of the dinosaurs. But Owen’s dodgy etymology would nevertheless win out, and it is the term dinosaur which is now most widely used.