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
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.
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.