I was going along by foot up from Museum Station towards the entrance of the Royal Ontario Museum when I noticed something afoot – specifically, stick-on dinosaur footprints on the sidewalk, leading along underfoot towards the entrance. Almost entrancing. Each had the name of a dinosaur on it. But my head really turned when I saw a name literally sesquipedalian – a foot and a half long – spanning one. It was a name with which I was unfamiliar and it had a spelling that seemed all gunked up, like an orthographic logjam: futalognkosaurus.
Well. I knew that was something to look up. As it turns out, it’s also something to look up at: a futalognkosaurus is much, much more than a foot long. The skeleton that has been assembled from three specimens is 70% intact, which allows us to see quite surely that this enormous herbivore was about 33 metres long, and its head can be seen more than two storeys above your feet. (See “Futalognkosaurus was one big-ass sauropod.”)
So the word is quite fitting in magnitude, with its six syllables, fourteen phonemes, sixteen letters. But, oh, yes, how does one say it? Attempts to sort it out this funky chaos might seem futile or even fatal without some guidance. Who, after all, is at fault for this gnarly knot, gnk?
Well, when you’re digging up remains of very old critters that haven’t been identified before, you have to get a name from somewhere. Sources vary. Krister Smith, for instance, named a little lizard Suzanniwana patriciana after two colleagues of his. In this case, Jorge Calvo and his team named the lizard – well, the dinosaur, but the saurus part comes from Greek for “lizard” – with a compound word taken from an indigenous language local to where the bones were dug up: Mapudungun, language of the Mapuche people of the Argentinian province of Neuquén. Futa means “giant” and lognko means “chief”. This is thus, in its linguistic miscegenation, a name for a giant chief lizard. (But a vegetarian one!)
Oh, and lognko is pronounced as it would be were it spelled longko. As in fact it sometimes also is. The Mapudungun language has various competing orthographies. All of them are efforts to fit the language into the Latin alphabet, which is not perfectly matched to it. Does gn seem an odd way to spell that sound, /ŋ/? Well, so is ng – there’s no /g/ in the sound, after all – and so are pretty much all two-letter representations of single sounds: sh, ch, th in English, for instance.
Anyway, this massive critter from the Cretaceous is such an odd transposition into the present, such a startling juxtaposition, and all made of bones, why should its name be a simple no-bones-about-it spelling? Better to have something that stops us in our tracks. Or in its tracks, on flagstones along underfoot.