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Where does the word "dinosaur" come from?

The word dinosaur really does not mean “terrible-lizard.” Actually, it was originally defined to mean “fearfully-great lizard” by Richard Owen in 1842. The Greek word deinos, when used as a superlative, means “fearfully-great,” as used by Homer in The Iliad. It became simplified over time, as an adjective, to mean “terrible.” In reality, scientists believe that dinosaurs are neither “terrible” nor “lizards!”

When the secrets of prehistoric life were unearthed, scientists tried to picture the feelings of those confronted by the great monsters whose fossil bones were coming again to light. Sir Richard Owen (English, 1804-1892) named a few of these creatures, from Greek words. Thus there was the terrible (fearful) lizard (Gk., deinos, “fearful,” plus sauros, “lizard”).

Dictionary of Word Origins by Joseph T. Shipley

Sir Richard Owen was an English zoologist and paleontologist (palaeontologist, British). In 1856, he was appointed superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum and was instrumental in the establishment of the separate British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum, becoming its first director in 1881.

In addtion to all of his important scientific publications, Sir Owen named and reconstructed numerous celebrated fossils, including the giant moa bird Dinornis, the dinosaur Iquanodon, and the earliest bird, the Archaeoptryx.

The Greek term deinos was: “expressive of the quality of objects which, from their vastness, magnitude, etc., inspire fear, awe, reverence, power, etc.” from Pickering: Comprehensive Lexicon of the Greek Language, 1873 edition. Richard Owen’s first published definition of Dinosauria was “fearfully great lizards,” and he noted that the group’s peculiar anatomical features (fused sacrum, pachyderm-like limbs) were “all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles.”

His arch-rival, Thomas Huxley (1869), even questioned if the name Dinosauria was appropriate after some members of the group turned out to be small. The term “terrible lizard” is now often wrongly interpreted to indicate a frighteningly vicious nature for dinosaurs, but this was not Owen’s original idea, and results from the different range of meanings “terrible” can have in English. Contrary to the version of history given in many current books, Owen did not introduce the term “Dinosauria” in a famous address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Plymouth, England, on August 2, 1841.

Detailed accounts of Owen’s spoken lecture in a number of respected journals of the day (including “The Literary Gazette” and “The Athenaeum”) make no mention of the Dinosauria, and indicate that Owen treated Megalosaurus and Iguanodon only as large, if unusual, lizard-like reptiles. It was only in the much-revised and expanded published version of the report, that appeared nearly a year later, in 1842, that Owen formally named and described the Dinosauria as a new order of reptiles, distinguished in particular by the presence of a sacrum with five fused vertebrae, as found in large mammals and birds. Recent research by the British geologist, Hugh Torrens, has documented how Owen came to his break-through insights between 1841 and 1842. Owen’s reasons for erecting the Dinosauria are still partly misinterpreted.

History of Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs are the best examples of success and adaptation known. They ruled the Earth longer than any other land animals, including humans (about 150 million years), and gave rise to birds. Dinosaurs and “humans” did not coexist. The death of the last dinosaur and the appearance of the first “human” (genus homo) is estimated to be separated by about 64 or 65 million years.

Paleontologists have constructed a timeline in which dinosaurs existed in the Mesozoic Era which theoretically started about 248 million years ago and which was divided into the Triassic Period, then the Jurassic Period, and finally the Cretaceous Period said to have ended about 65 million years ago when dinosaurs became extinct and then a new Cenozoic Era began in which mankind is said to have evolved or came into existence.

As stated above, authorities maintain that mankind [Cenozoic Era] did not exist in the same time period or era as the previous period of the dinosaurs [Mesozoic Era], but mankind should not feel too self assured about the absence of threats from dinosaurs. If the dinosaurs could not touch them, there were (and are) plenty of other dangers that people must be aware of.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

              -T.S. Eliot

Turning one’s back on present dangers and pain
Cancels out the advantages we have from past gain.

Dinosaurs were not “warm-blooded” like modern mammals, nor were they “cold-blooded” like modern lizards. Most specialists believe that dinosaurs were “dinosaur-blooded”, a condition that combines “warm-bloodedness” with a changing metabolism over the animal’s lifetime. A new unofficial term, “metathermy,” has been proposed for this condition in Mesozoic dinosaurs. Popular books, movies, and TV specials are not necessarily completely accurate. They often contain errors and outdated information, and may reflect the personal bias of the writer. Most dinosaur books and TV scripts are not reviewed by professional dinosaur paleontologists.

All of the dinosaurs did not live and die at the same time. The distance in time between Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus (formerly called “Brontosaurus”) is the same amount of time as between Tyrannosaurus and the first humans, about 65 million years. Of the (approximately) 350 known mesozoic dinosaurs, only one to two dozen species faced the final extinction in North America. Mammals did not arise after the dinosaurs, and there is no evidence that they helped drive the dinosaurs into extinction by eating their eggs. Mammals and dinosaurs both appeared in the Upper Triassic Period.

The End of the Dinosaurs

Did an asteroid (or comet) kill the dinosaurs? The “asteroid theory” of dinosaur extinction has not been proven nor solved. “Proof” that an asteroid hit the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous does not automatically prove that it killed the dinosaurs. Most dinosaur specialists are willing to accept that an asteroid hit the Earth, but not that it was the one cause of the Mesozoic extinctions. However, most articles on this topic are written by non-dinosaur specialists. The remaining unsolved question is when did the asteroid hit? Was it before, during, or after the “classic dinosaurs” went extinct? It should be remembered that birds are the direct descendants of one dinosaur group, the Theoropoda; so in a way, dinosaurs are not extinct.

All big “monster” reptiles from the prehistoric past are not dinosaurs. They represented less than 10% of the 40 groups of reptiles from the Mesozoic Era. Pterodactyls, sea-serpents, giant lizards, pelycosaurs, and other big prehistoric beasts are not dinosaurs. “Monsters” and dragons are the products of fiction and mythology while dinosaurs were real.

Archaeologists do not dig up dinosaurs. Archaeology (a subdivision of anthropology) deals only with mankind and covers the last four million years. Paleontology (a combination of geology and biology), deals with all fossils and covers the last 3.5 billion years!

The preceding material is based on information presented in “The Top 10 Misconceptions about Dinosaurs”
compiled by M. K. Brett-Surman, Donald F. Glut, and Thomas R. Holtz of the National Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. as seen on its Internet site.