Friday, 8 February 2019

DInosaur Naming Conventions

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Dinosaurs and other extinct mega-fauna are great.

They are big and large and dumb and you can use them as super beasts or dragons without feeling like you are cheating the mythology by just having them being large bastards that eat or step on people.

However they often have long ass hard to say names that can feel out of place amongst  the other monster and animal names.

So Now I will Talk About the Merits of Various Nomenclature for Megafauna  In Rpgs

This is arguably a redundant point considering  the amount of language groups and mythologies involved in the monster manual or even just a regular zoo. Surely one will adapt in time?

Possibly! But there's a certain satisfaction in this (small) aspect of world building .

For example the  rareness or familiarity of said dinosaur /mega fauna to the main culture groups is going to be reflected in the name. 

So something that a culture talks about a lot is unlikely to have a long name or one with unusual sounds.
If the name used is a loan word from another language it can often becoming shortened or simplified to fit that language.

I.e Tyrannosaurus Rex becomes T-rex, Orang Hutan becomes Orangutan (and not even said like how it's spelt here) .

Names of things very familiar to culture for a very long time tend to be short and simpler (cow , sheep, goat, dog)  and sometimes have words created from them  (dogged , doggerel)

 To mimic this you can retro-fit words for a creature, i.e called a brontosaurs a bridge, the idea being bridges were named after brontosaurs.

When something is discovered or introduced later to culture (and the existing name is unfamiliar or unsuitable) a quick or throw away description often becomes the name.
The name is created by modifying the word for something familiar and/or a closes resemblence to said thing
The familiarity seems to be more important than the actual resemblance (pineapple, sea mouse).
Then a word that references something else it resembles (mole cricket , crab louse)
a differing property from a familiar form (red pine, water melon, sea turtle)
 its region or environment (Barbary ape, Canadian goose, Sea snake).

While d&d has a lot of "giant" animals with the giant in the name (giant beaver, giant rat, giant bat etc etc), this doesn't come up a lot in real word naming conventions (obvious exceptions include giant squid, giant clam and a few others).

Probably because its rare that you have a giant animal and the regular animal in the same place , so the resident population would just see the giant animal as regular size.

Even when there is 2 similar animals of different sizes (Rabbit and Hare, Rat and Mouse, Gazelle and like one of those dozens of animals like a gazelle but a different size and horn shape) it's rare that one of them gets called giant.

I think it only gets done when some explorer or discoverer type is trying to impress people back home.

Sometimes when the name is a loan word used, the loan word can just be a common description in that language (orangutan meaning Man of The Woods, though there is possible a touch of reverence here) .

Where a loan word is used and its not particularly simple , its possible because the named creature was particular exotic or impressive and someone was trying to impress everyone back home.

Something particular impressive can then loan its name as new verb or adjective (mammoth ). This can be an excuse to name a beast after an adjective or verb in your world (the Mighty,A Wiggle, Flung)

When new names are created for extinct megafauna in fantasy one awful habit is  doing a weird fake tribal "part+ thing the part resembles", i.e Dagger Tail, Hammer head, Whip Tail.

Though the latin name of dinosaur are often this , there's few real world examples of this being used as a naming convention.

To my ear these names tend to be too long for something familiar to culture and too banal if its something unfamiliar and impressive.

Here's my list of megafauna I'm using and the names for them. They are mixture of different language groups, bad puns, descriptors, archaic words , and mashed together combinations of the above.

T-rex: Tyrant , Tyrant King, Tyrant Lizard
(medieval bestiarys had a habit of trying to name one particular animal as the King animal of that type. The basilisk was referred to as the King Of Poison which I always liked)

Ankysaurus: Fortoises
(assuming namers of it would compare it to tortoise and some wag would have made this joke. The only thing close to a real world name created portmanteau syle like this  that I can think of is the old word for giraffe "camelopard". Referring to it having spots like a leopard and a neck like camel)

Gyphadont: Armadazo
(armadillo means little armoured one , this means big armoured one. It's an excuse to mix up the language origins without straying too far from the familiar)

Pterodactyl. = skinbird
:small: skinhawk
Medium , ridable : Picador

(these are common enough to even be a steed. Picador refers to the military unit that uses them and has become a name for the animal itself.)

Quetzalcoatlus  Emperor Skin Bird

Stegosaurus: Massif
(a geological term meant to be referring to the shape of its back. I won't be able to say this without thinking about the "Because da Jungle is MASSIF" joke but that's not a problem.

Triceratops: Trino
(Micheal Raston of Lizardman diaries came up with this and it's fucking gold)

Brontosaurus: Behemoth
(it's good word and I wasn't using it for a super monster. Doesn't have enough mythological richness for me personally to "waste" on just being a big animal)

Velicoraptor: Raptor (popular culture has done the work here already)

Megatherium: Slothlord (More because it sounds good than applied real world naming conventions)

Paraceratherium: Indrik, Hummock
(Indrik is mythological creature that these were named after at one point. Hummock is type of hill and nice mouth shape word)

Mosasaurs; Devil-whale (The Vikings had a lot of "evil whales" and some of them are described pretty similar to a Mosasaur. I would use one of their names but I can't pronounce them easily)

Plesioaur : snakefish, brinewyrm. tideworm
(I feel I can get away with the slightly inaccurate and unimpressive "snakefish" this as there isn't a lot names like this here and marine animals tended to get named like this , "whale shark", "sea lion", "sun fish". Plus I like the incongruousness of it being called a snakefish? 

Andrewsarchus: Kingpig
(I might be overusing the King thing here but Kingpig is good word)

Chalicotherium: goat-ape, knuck-cuu

 (as its not as terrifying as some of the others I feel it can have more mundane name like goat-ape. Knuck-cuu ; like a cow but walking on its knuckles


  1. I am personally guilty of the weird fake tribal 'sharptooth' gimmick. This post has for sure changed the way I'll describe big beasties.

    Interesting note about the Brontosaurus/Behemoth connection: Some Young-Earth Creationists (The nutters who think the Earth is only 6000 years old) argue that the Behemoth referred to in the bible was in fact a sauropod. Their argument hinges on the fact that no extant megafauna has a 'tail like a cedar'.

    1. Shouldn't a tail like a cedar be like kinda fluffy or otherwise not long and tapered? Rhetoric question

  2. This is pretty helpful - I actually needed to go and name a dumb fantasy dinosaur the other day

  3. Now I have realized I left out the bit about how naming can make stuff cognitively smoother and make the players re-imagine the beast rather than just having a cloud of fossil reconstruction art in their head every time you say triceratops rather than Trino.
    And if calling something a Trino causes some kind of Medieval Depiction of an Elephant situation in the players mind or artistic responses so much the better

  4. I really enjoy your blog, I've been reading it for a while. I've always thought about starting one myself and yours and others like it have pushed me to make take the plunge. Thank you. This post reminded me of something I wrote up but never posted a while ago, I'm dusting it off and putting it up now.

    1. Huzzah! just don't commit to a massive rewrite of an existing setting, start a kickstarter or go on a crusade and you should have a good time

  5. "jellyfish" I mean I guess it's in the sea and fish are in the sea so..

  6. From what I read of it, Victor Milan's "The Dinosaur Lords" has a cute solution to this problem, where the real-world Latin name is recorded in 'The Book of True Names,' so the reader can tell for certain which species it is (helps that a lot of the setting is vaguely Spanish, so Latin tracks as an older version of the language), but the names characters commonly use are closer to what you laid out here, like hadrosaurs are named after an early form of trombone. I think some of the rarer big carnivores just get their Latin name, since they're not commonly domesticated.