How Dinosaurs are Named

Tiny tyrant (nanotyrannus). Giant duck (anatotitan). Lea Ellyn Lizard (leaellynosaura). Three-horned lizard (triceratops). Egypt lizard (aegyptosaurs). King of the Tyrants lizard (Tyrannosaurus rex).

Dinosaur names mean something. The preceding names are among what a few of those dinosaur names mean. Most names for dinosaurs are based on Latin or Greek origin words, but other languages have been sources for the names. Latin and Greek have provided the majority of scientific names. This is because at the time the system for regular naming was started, Latin and Greek were the main languages for science and literature. The “naming convention” for dinosaurs allows the first discoverer of a new species to have the naming rights.

Dinosaur names, like those of other animals, and also plants, follow the system originally set up by Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), the Swedish botanist who has become known as the Father of Taxonomy. He was born in 1707 in Sweden. After years living abroad, he returned to Sweden, where he died in 1778. Prior to Linnaeus’s work, scientific names tended to be very descriptive and overly long, and people changed them at will. Linnaeus had a love of nature, and also of orderliness. He developed a system of naming, starting with plants, that was precise and methodical and orderly. There have been some changes over the years to his system, to make things more accurate, but what we use today dates to his organizing work.

Dinosaur names themselves generally fall into one of three descriptive categories.

The first category is physical characteristics. Dinosaur names that fall into this category include monolophosaurus (one crest lizard), stegosaurus (plated lizard), struthiomimus (ostrich mimic), brachiosaurus (arm lizard, because its arms are longer than its legs), iguanadon (iguana tooth) and pentaceratops (five horned).

The second category is that of a habitat location or of first discovery or to honor a place. Some wonderful examples of this include rajasaurus (prince lizard, discovered in India), qantasaurus (named for the Australian airline company), edmontonia (after Edmonton, Canada), lesothosaurus (Lesotho lizard, for the nation of Lesotho, Africa) and shunosaurus and szechuanosaurus (for Szechuan/Sichuan, a province in China).

The third major category for dinosaur names has been that of “people names.” Among these names are drinker (for Charles Drinker Cope, a 19th century dinosaur hunter), marshosaurus and othnielia (for Othniel Marsh, 19th century dinosaur hunting competitor of Cope) and leaellynosaura (named for the daughter of 2 Australian paleontologists).

There a fourth category of dinosaur names. This category is sort of a catch-all category, for all those names that do not really fit anywhere else. Among them are names that imply a behavior or a “looks” sort of name. Included here are saichania (Chinese for “beautiful”) and tarchia (Chinese for “brainy” or “smart”). Maiasaura (good mother lizard), oviraptor (egg thief) and velociraptor (speedy thief) also fall into this category.

Links for more information, fun names and more roots for dinosaur names: