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Plateosaurus: the Etymology and Meaning of a Name
From: Ben Creisler
My apologies to the DML for the length of this posting--I don't have a
blog of my own. Confusion over the etymology and the meaning of the
name Plateosaurus has been fairly common. In particular, the English
language and the German language Wikipedia articles currently give an
incorrect meaning for Plateosaurus that has spread around the web. I
hope this discussion helps clear up the issue.
Etymology and Meaning of the Name Plateosaurus
Back in the 1990s, I compiled a list of dinosaur names with
etymologies that I had researched from the original sources wherever
possible. The late vertebrate paleontologist Donald Baird was a great
help in this project, and offered critical comments and photocopies of
rare works. I wrote a number of articles on the topic for the Dinosaur
Report newsletter for the Dinosaur Society. One article in 1995 was
about the German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer, entitled “Pondering
the Pachypoda.” In the article, I gave the etymology “broad lizard”
for Plateosaurus, with the spelling explained by the genitive-case
form plateos of Greek platys “broad.” I later posted this etymology on
Jeff Poling’s website Dinosauria.com. That website is sadly gone, but
my old lists of names are still posted on some mirror sites:
Currently, the English language Wikipedia article for Plateosaurus
states the following:
Plateosaurus (meaning "broad way lizard", often mistranslated as "flat
lizard" or "broad lizard")
As explained in the Etymology section of the Wikipedia article, this
suggested derivation is from Greek plateia, meaning “broad road” or
“broad way.” However, the meaning “broad way lizard” and a derivation
from Greek plateia are almost certainly incorrect as explained below.
The very comprehensive German Wikipedia article for Plateosaurus
likewise gives the meaning of the name as “Breitweg-Echse.”
Both of these articles cite Markus Moser’s 2003 monograph on
Plateosaurus as the source for the etymology:
Moser, M. (2003). Plateosaurus engelhardti Meyer, 1837 (Dinosauria,
Sauropodomorpha) aus dem Feuerletten (Mittelkeuper; Obertrias) von
Bayern. Zitteliana Reihe B, Abhandlungen der Bayerischen
Staatssammlung fuer Palaeontologie und Geologie 24: 1–186
Moser's major monograph has a large English summary. Markus has now
made the pdf available at the University of Munich link, which also
offers other pdfs from Zitteliana:
(Earlier issues of Zitteliana (through 2002) are available on the
Biodiversity Heritage Library site:
I think it is worthwhile to straighten out the etymology and the
meaning of the name for such an important dinosaur as Plateosaurus.
I first want to thank Heinrich Mallison for sending me a pdf of Moser
2003 and for kindly providing an accurate and detailed English
translation of the German text discussing the etymology.
I especially want to thank Markus Moser for many helpful comments and
for pointing out a number of important issues. As explained later, he
has changed his mind since 2003 about the etymology of Plateosaurus
and no longer thinks that the name means “broad way
Here is my suggested etymology for Plateosaurus in English, based
largely on personal research:
Plateosaurus: "broad lizard" [= "broad-built lizard"] for its large
size and massive build
(from Greek adjective platys (genitive plateos (stem plate-)) "broad,
wide, flat; large, bulky" [or from Greek noun platos (genitive plateos
(stem plate-)) "breadth, width, bulk"] + Greek sauros "lizard")
This approach provides a simple meaning "broad lizard" and an
interpreted meaning "broad-built lizard" that better expresses von
Meyer's idea behind the name Plateosaurus.
A meaning "flat lizard," "oar lizard," or "broad way lizard" for the
name Plateosaurus has no basis in von Meyer's original material or
descriptions, and should be avoided.
The exact etymology for Plateosaurus remains a puzzle since the stem
plate- could come from the genitive case plateos of either the Greek
adjective platys "broad" or the Greek noun platos "breadth," which is
derived from platys.
See Perseus Greek grammar link:
Based on Hermann von Meyer's other names for fossil animals, it may be
more likely that he composed the name from the Greek NOUN platos
rather than the Greek ADJECTIVE platys, although the intepreted
meaning "broad-built lizard" would be appropriate either way. I may do
a later posting about von Meyer’s names.
For the range of meanings commonly found for Greek platys in classical
Other words in Greek related to platys and platos include plate
“oar-blade” or “flat surface,” plateos “broadly,” plateion “tablet,”
plateia “broad road,” platykephalos “flat-headed,” platyno “broaden,
widen,” and platynotos “broad-backed.” The name (or nickname to be
precise) of the famous Greek philosopher Plato translates as
“broad-shoulders” and comes from platys.
For more grammar issues about platys, platos, and Plateosaurus, see
the footnote at the end.
Early History of the Name Plateosaurus
A short history may help explain von Meyer's intended meaning for the
name Plateosaurus. The features repeatedly stressed by von Meyer and
clearly understood in early sources were the animal’s giant size and
massive build, which can be expressed in the term “broad” (better
understood here as “broad-built”).
1830: German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer (1801-1869) presents a
system for classifying fossil reptiles based on their toes and limb
bones. He creates a special division for forms that have massive limbs
like those of heavy land mammals and includes Megalosaurus and
Iguanodon. Von Meyer’s classification is the first recognition of
dinosaurs as a distinct group. (Isis 1830)
1837: Von Meyer identifies fossil bones from a site in Germany near
Nuremberg as a those of a giant reptile related to Megalosaurus and
Iguanodon from England. He names the animal Plateosaurus, but provides
no etymology and few descriptive details. The type material consists
mainly of parts of limb bones and vertebrae. [Von Meyer (1839) later
recognizes a sacrum with three fused vertebrae in the material.] There
are no teeth or any parts of the pubic apron or shoulder-blades or
skull in the type material that could be characterized as “flat.”
Meyer, H. von (1837). Mitteilung an Prof. Bronn [Plateosaurus
engelhardti]. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und
Petrefakten-Kunde : 316.
Meyer, H. von (1839). Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geognosie,
Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde : 76-79.
Thomas Huxley's translation and comments:
[1842: Richard Owen publishes a paper erecting the Dinosauria
("fearfully great lizards") for Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and
1844: Louis Agassiz publishes the Reptilia portion of his Nomenclator
Zoologicus, which includes names of fossil forms provided in part by
Hermann von Meyer. Evidently with no information from von Meyer
himself, Agassiz gives the etymology for Plateosaurus as Greek plate
“oar” (Latin pala) + sauros “lizard.”
1845: Von Meyer gives the formal name Pachypodes (later as Pachypoda)
"thick feet" or “stout feet” [= “pachyderm feet”] to his “second
division” of fossil reptiles, equivalent to Owen’s Dinosauria.
Meyer, H. von (1845). System der fossilen Saurier. Neues Jahrbuch für
Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde 1845: 278–285
1846: German geologist Hans Bruno Geinitz (1814-1900) publishes
Grundriss der Versteinerungskunde [Outline for the Study of Fossils].
On page 89, Geintiz gives the etymology “Plateosaurus H. v. Mey.
(platys, breit).” In German, “breit” means “broad.” (However, Geinitz
classifies Plateosaurus as a crocodile and Megalosaurus as a lizard.)
1846: Agassiz publishes the final comprehensive index for his
Nomenclator Zoologicus and “corrects” the spelling of Plateosaurus to
“Platysaurus,” clearly changing his mind about his original proposed
derivation from Greek plate “oar.” The name Platysaurus is derived
from Greek platys. In other etymologies in the Nomenclator Zoologicus,
Agassiz typically gave Latin latus “broad” as the meaning of Greek
[It seems unlikely that Agassiz and Geinitz knew about each others’
etymologies for Plateosaurus from platys. It also seems extremely
doubtful that von Meyer contacted either man about the etymology.]
1855: Von Meyer publishes a detailed description of Plateosaurus with
illustrations, but no etymology. He repeatedly refers to its gigantic
size [Riesensaurus] and massive limbs [schwerfüssig], similar to large
modern land mammals. No important features are described that fit the
description “flat” or shaped like an “oar.”
Meyer, H. von (1855). Zur Fauna der Vorwelt. Zweite Abtheilung. Die
Saurier des Muschelkalks, mit Rücksicht auf die Saurier aus dem bunten
Sandstein und Keuper. H. Keller, Frankfurt am Main. pp. i-vlii; 1-167.
[no link available that I could find]
1874: French Larousse dictionary gives the etymology: PLATÉOSAURE s.
m. (pla-té-o-so-re du gr. platus, large; sauros, lézard). Erpét. Genre
de reptiles fossiles peu connu.[Poorly known genus of fossil reptile.]
The French word "large" translates as "broad, wide" in English so the
French name “platéosaure” would mean “broad lizard,” another clue as
to how the name was usually understood during the 19th century. (Many
modern French sources now give the meaning of Plateosaurus as "lézard
plat" [flat lizard] rather than "lézard large.")
A meaning "oar lizard" for Plateosaurus originated with Agassiz,
although he later rejected that etymology. Other early sources
(Geinitz) derived the name Plateosaurus from Greek platys with a
meaning "broad," clearly deciding that von Meyer's source was the
genitive stem plate- of platys and not the Greek noun plate "oar."
The idea that Plateosaurus means "flat lizard" may have come from
variations in the main meaning given for Greek platys in Greek
dictionaries and other sources. Some sources list the primary meaning
of platys as “broad, wide” while others offer “flat, even” first,
followed by “broad, wide.” In addition, the Greek noun plate could
mean an “oar” but also anything with a flat surface. See:
Later authors tried to explain a meaning “flat lizard,” often by
citing features in more complete fossil material that was later
attributed to Plateosaurus and NOT found in von Meyer’s original
material. Suggested features that supposedly inspired the meaning
“flat lizard” have included flat teeth, the flat shape of the frontal
bones on the skull, and the distinctive flat "pubic apron"--all
features absent in the fossil material available to von Meyer.
Markus Moser (2003) proposed the meaning "broad way lizard"
["Breitweg-Echse"] to explain the spelling of Plateosaurus,based on
Greek plateia "broad road" or "broad way" taken as a reference to the
animal's broad-gauge [breitspurig] stance. However, the spelling
Plateosaurus can be better explained by a stem plate- from the
genitive case plateos from either the Greek adjective platys "broad"
or the closely related noun platos "breadth, bulk."
Markus no longer thinks that the name Plateosaurus came from Greek
plateia with a meaning "broad way lizard" or "Breitweg Echse," and
favors a meaning "Breitechse" [broad lizard] with a derivation from
Greek platys or platos (personal communication).
Genitive Case Stem in Forming Names
The common practice in ancient Greek and Latin, adopted for Neo-Latin
scientific names, is to form compound words or names using a stem form
of a word and, when needed, a connecting vowel (o or i). For nouns and
adjectives from Greek and Latin, the stem can be different from the
dictionary headword. The stem is commonly found be removing the
grammatical ending from the genitive (or possessive) case form of a
noun or an adjective. (This use of the genitive case in forming
compound words has nothing to do with a possessive meaning!)
Thus the Greek noun keras “horn” (the dictionary head entry) has a
genitive case keratos. Remove the grammatical ending –os to get the
stem kerat-. In Latinized spelling as cerat- , this form of keras
“horn” shows up in Ceratosaurus, Ceratopsia, Triceratops, etc.
Similarly, the Greek masculine adjective megas “great” has a genitive
megalos, which has a stem megal- found in the names such as
Megalosaurus, Megalodon and Megalneusaurus. (But note Megatherium.)
Adjectives in Greek and Latin had three genders: masculine, feminine,
neuter. The stem of the combining form of the adjective is taken from
the genitive of the masculine singular form.
This “use the stem of the genitive” rule to find combining forms of
words had exceptions in Greek and Latin, a point that may bear on the
derivation and spelling of Plateosaurus. In particular, Greek had a
number of masculine adjectives the end in –ys with a genitive form
ending in –eos: barys “heavy,” brakhys “short,” eurys “wide,” pakhys
“thick,” platys “broad,” etc. The standard Latinized combining forms,
however, are bary-, brachy-, eury-, pachy-, platy-, etc., found in
dinosaur names such as Baryonyx, Brachylophosaurus,
For a discussion of this special group of adjectives in Greek, see
In both classical and Neo-Latin usage, it would be unusual to use a
stem from the genitive case such as plate- from plateos instead of
platy- in forming a zoological name such as Plateosaurus-- if the
adjective platys is the source.
Note that von Meyer used the CORRECT combining form of such Greek
adjectives in his other generic names such as Pachyodon “thick tooth”
(1838), Eurysternum “wide sternum” (1839), Trachyaspis “rough shield”
(1843), Pachypodes (1845) “stout feet,” Brachymys “short mouse”
He also would have been aware of many earlier generic names with
platy- by other authors such as Platydactylus Goldfuss 1820 (“flat
toes”), Platynotus Wagler, 1830 (“broad back”), Platysternon Gray,
1831 (“broad sternum”), and Platypeltis Fitzinger, 1835 (“broad
shield”) to use only examples of reptiles.
Von Meyer used a spelling “-eosaurus” in a number of his other names,
including Rhacheosaurus (1835) and Ardeosaurus (1860). Both of these
names are formed from a Greek NOUN that has a genitive case in –eos:
Rhacheosaurus “spine lizard” (from Greek noun rhakhis (genitive
rhakheos (stem rhakhe-)) “spine, backbone” + Greek sauros "lizard")
for the unusual shape of its vertebrae
Ardeosaurus “arrowhead lizard” (from Greek noun ardis (genitive ardeos
(stem arde-) ) “arrowhead” + Greek sauros "lizard") for the pointed
shape of its skull
Based on these examples, it seems more probable that von Meyer formed
the name Plateosaurus from the Greek NOUN platos “breadth, width,
bulk” rather than from the ADJECTIVE platys “broad; large, bulky.” If
he had derived the name from platys, he likely would have used the
spelling “Platysaurus” in the same way that Agassiz later “corrected”
the name Plateosaurus. Because von Meyer did not provide an etymology,
his EXACT source (platys or platos) for Plateosaurus remains open to
Whether the name Plateosaurus has a literal etymology “broad lizard”
from platys or “breadth lizard” or “bulk lizard” from platos, an
interpreted meaning such as “broad-built lizard” (perhaps as
“Breitgebautechse” in German) would more fully convey von Meyer’s
However, the adjective “broad” in English and adjective “breit” in
German can be used to indicate a person or an animal with a large and
massive build. On this basis, a simple meaning “broad lizard” in
English and “Breitechse” (or “ breite Echse”) in German would be a
suitable translation of the name Plateosaurus.
Other languages would be similar:
French: "lézard large" (or "reptile large")
Spanish: "lagarto largo" (or "reptil largo")
Portuguese: “lagarto largo” (or “réptil largo”)
Italian: "lucertola larga" (or "rettile largo")
Dutch: "breed reptiel"
Polish: "szeroki jaszczur"
Russian: "shirokii yashcher"
The standard Chinese name for Plateosaurus is “banlong” from Chinese
ban “board, plank, plate” and Chinese long “dragon” so a change to
another Chinese name would be confusing.