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Re: Plateosaurus: the Etymology and Meaning of a Name
Many thanks, Ben, for this most thorough and meticulous research, and
for the very clear presentation! I'll fit this into the wikipedia
Dr. Heinrich Mallison
Museum für Naturkunde - Leibniz-Institut
für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung
an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Office phone: +49 (0)30 2093 8764
Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.
Gaius Julius Caesar
On Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 1:34 AM, Ben Creisler <email@example.com> wrote:
> 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
> usage see:
> 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
> Hylaeosaurus. ]
> 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.
> (Plateosaurus: 152-155)
> [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.]
> (page 1149)
> 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,
> Pachycephalosaurus, etc.
> For a discussion of this special group of adjectives in Greek, see
> Clements 1902:
> 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”
> (1847), etc.
> 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
> intended meaning.
> 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.