Thursday, January 22, 2004


When my son got interested in dinosaurs, I began to learn about all the dinosaurs that had been discovered since I read about them as a kid. One of them is a meat-eater from South America, with a snub-nosed face and two short horns above its eyes. These features reminded the dinosaur’s discoverer of a bull, so he named it Carnotaurus (yes, that’s –taurus, not –saurus), which most of the dinosaur books I’ve seen translate as “meat-eating bull.” Now that’s just not right. The Carno- part means “meat,” and the taurus part means “bull,” but where’s the “eat” part? Carnotaurus doesn’t mean “meat-eating bull”; it means “meatbull”!

But wait, you say. “Meatbull” doesn’t make any sense. That’s right. “Meat-EATING bull” makes much more sense, but dammit, just because “meatbull” doesn’t make any sense doesn’t mean you can just go adding whatever meaning you think should go in there! For example, think about the Jurassic plant-eater Brachiosaurus, whose name means “arm-lizard.” Arm-lizard? What’s an arm-lizard? Well, if Carnotaurus means “meat-EATING bull,” then maybe Brachiosaurus means “arm-BREAKING lizard.” After all, “arm-BREAKING lizard” makes a lot of sense if you imagine a big old Brachiosaurus stomping down on an unfortunate allosaur. For that matter, who says we have to insert a meaning that makes sense? Brachiosaurus could just as easily mean “arm-EATING lizard,” or “arm-DRINKING lizard,” or “arm-PAINTING lizard.” Actually, “arm-lizard” does make sense once you find out that the people who named it were referring to the fact that its front legs (i.e. arms) were longer than its rear legs, which is unusual for a dinosaur. But in that case, why hasn’t Brachiosaurus been translated as “arms-LONGER-THAN-LEGS lizard” for all these years?

So paleontologists have a couple of options. They can say that Carnotaurus means “meat-bull,” and that a meatbull is a bull that eats meat. Or they can name the dinosaur something like Carnivorotaurus, and say that that means “meat-eating bull.” But they can’t name it Carnotaurus and say that its name means “meat-eating bull.” Alas, as R. Crumb, might put it, Meatbull doesn’t work that way!

No comments: