Warm Up Your Tongue: Here Come the Dinosaur Names

plastic dinosaurs

If you’re a new parent, like I once was, you’re likely to be asked to pronounce words that were never intended for everyday conversation. No, I’m not talking about variations on “poop”; I mean dinosaur names.

Every academic specialization has its quirky jargon: words only the specialists are supposed to know. Dinosaur names are no different. They clearly originated as a kind of naturalist argot of a bygone era. On my low days, I sometimes wondered if those naturalists were just trying to show off their superior classical language skills.

Imagine! You find a dinosaur that looks a bit like a crocodile. What do you call it? Suchomimus. Sure, because everybody calls a crocodile a “suchus.” I admit, I can say that one (now), but can you? (Sook-oh-MY-mus) Or say you find a dino skull with a huge hollow tube on top. What name comes to mind? Parasaurolophus, what else? Never mind that the average word in English these days is two syllables. This one has six, and no one seems to agree on where to put the emPHAsis. (Para-soar-OHL-ih-fuss, or Para-soar-uh-LOW-fiss) Good luck.

To make matters worse, not every kid’s book gives pronunciation guidance on the names. Some, no doubt, assume everybody has it down by now. Well, we don’t. But publishers can’t always be bothered.

So here’s the problem, in a nutshell. There’s a good chance you’ll be asked to pronounce one of these behemoths without any help. What could be worse? Your child stares at you, wide-eyed, innocent and trusting. Your spouse listens in from the other room. What will you do? Fudge it? You could try; but if your child is like mine was, the moment they see “Dinosaur Train,” your credibility is shot.

Here are my survival tips.

1. Study some Greek. Since most of these words are based on Greek words, you’ll be saved some embarrassment. For instance, “deinos” means “terrible,” and “nychus” means “claw.” In Greek, the “ch” is pronounced like a hard “k.” This salvages the second half of “deinonychus” for you, and gives you a clue as to the word’s meaning.

2. Forget your Greek. Once you’ve brushed up on your Greek, selectively forget your knowledge of Greek pronunciation, especially of vowels. In Greek, “ei” is pronounced like the “ei” in eight. Also, in Greek, the emphasis would fall on the second to last syllable. But after years of saying “Dei-no-NIGH-kuss” we got a book that insisted on Die-NON-ih-kuss.

3. Ignore common sense. Which brings us to tip #3: For best results, place the emphasis in the most unnatural place imaginable. No right-thinking person would see deinonychus and assume the emphasis should fall on that measly, despicable “o” in the middle. But that’s apparently where it falls. So forget your instincts. These are dinosaur names. They’re supposed to be terrible.

Now that you have these tips, see how you make out with the following gems of pseudo-Greek contrivance:

Diplodocus      (dih-PLOD-ih-kuss) NOT dih-plo-DO-kuss

Chasmosaurus (kaz-muh-SAUR-us) NOT chaz-mo (think “chaos”)

Giganotosaurus (Jig-uh-note-uh-SAUR-us) NOT Jie-gan-tuh-SAUR-us, because that would have been too easy.

Pachycephalosaurus (pack-ee-sef-uh-lo-SAUR-us, because the “ch” imitates the Greek “k,” while the “c” in the middle imitates what English, not Greek, would do)

Ankylosaurus (an-KIE-luh-SAUR-us) NOT AN-kee-luh-SAUR-us. The Greek “y” is often pronounced as the “y” in “by.” Except when it isn’t, as in, I think, the following one:

Hypsilophodon           (Hip-sill-OFF-uh-don)

I guessed on that last one: it came from a “Visual Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs” we bought my son, and the editors chose to give no pronunciation guidance. On the same page one finds the word “Ornithischian.” (Deep breaths. You can do this.)

4. Know your dates. There is one more rule. Try to develop a sense of how recently a particular dinosaur was discovered. You’ll need this, because more recent species are named after their discoverers or, in some instance, the places where they were discovered. They have to be pronounced as though they were surnames or place-names with “saurus” or some such thing attached to them. Oh, and don’t forget that lots of dinosaurs are being found in China now.

So here are a few examples of that sort:

Lambeosaurus (Lam-uh-SAUR-us, named after somebody named Lambe, so it’s NOT lam-be-uh-SAUR-us)

Efraasia (I have no idea. It’s named after E. Fraas. Likely that would be ee-FRAHZ-ya)

Beipiaosaurus (from the Chinese city “Beipiao,” hence I’m guessing: bay-pyow-SAUR-us)

Xuanhanosaurus (your guess is good as mine; let’s say shooan-AHN-uh-SAUR-us)


Now you’re as ready as you will be. You’re sure to fail, but keep trying. And if your child gets to a point where she can rattle off those names better than you (as mine did), take your lumps humbly. It’s training for all the technology they’re going to understand before you do. the end

Photo credit: Denise Chan / flickr.com

4 thoughts on “Warm Up Your Tongue: Here Come the Dinosaur Names

  1. Too funny! I’m already dreading this and my son is only 8 months old! I have already had to fake a few of these words with my nephews so hopefully I’m well-prepared!

  2. Hi John. Good stuff! I’ve been writing children’s dino books for the last few years and I, too, stumbled across ridiculous names that (perhaps out of self-loathing) I felt I just had to put into my stories…and then figure out how to rhyme with ’em. Worst part is trying to get a definitive version (since I do include pronunciations) because even the darn paleontologists themselves seem to disagree now and again. We should talk…

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