Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Did Jurassic Park Name T. rex?

T. rex illustration by Matt Martyniuk, licensed.
There's a pretty interesting historical paleontology thread happening over at the Hell Creek forum. In the most recent issue of Prehistoric Times, one article claims that the influence of the film Jurassic Park, released in 1993, included popularizing terms like the name "raptor" for dromaeosaurs (unquestionable) as well as the abbreviation T. rex for Tyrannosaurus rex. Did JP really give the world "T. rex"?

This idea at first seems very counter-intuitive. Abbreviating the genus name is common practice in biology and has been for a very long time. Some of these abbreviated binomials have even made it into common parlance, T. rex being the prime example, but also E. coli. However, just when this particular bit of dinosaurian shorthand moved from technical abbreviation to de-facto vernacular name for the species is an interesting question I'm probably too young to have a decent handle on. What follows is a little bit of cursory research I've done to try and answer the question, but anybody with a better living memory of the early 1980s should feel free to chime in with a comment that completely invalidates the rest of this post!

As a youngster in the '80s, I don't recall the term T. rex being very much on my radar. I have vague memories of associating the abbreviation as another quirky Bob Bakker-ism, but this may very well have only been after the influence of JP (Bakker was quick to adopt the JP-ism "raptor" as well, in the early '90s). As a young child, the towering 20ft-tall (in mostly incorrect erect pose) monster I saw in the American Museum of Natural History went mainly by his ominous full first name... Tyrannosaurus. A quick search through a few of my 1980s era books, both geared towards adults and kids, confirms this. A few of them never even use the species name rex. Apparently, even Bakker never once used the term T. rex in his seminal book The Dinosaur Heresies, which I'd have initially put money on as the popular source. Greg Paul uses it in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, but this is a more technical book dealing with nomenclature and classification, where one would expect to find technical binomial abbreviations.

I decided to bring a little science to the effort and plug these various terms into Google's awesome Ngram tool, which creates graphs of word usage over time by searching the Google Books archive. I set the date range to between 1905 (the year T. rex was named) and 2008 (the last year Ngrams covers), and set the smoothing to 0 in order to get the graph as specific as possible with no averaging of the graph. I searched three terms at once: "Tyrannosaurus", "Tyrannosaurus rex", and "T. rex". Here is the result. Note that the results aren't perfect--after random spot-shcecking in Google Books, I found a use of T. rex from 1998 showing up with the date 1946, and Books itself (not sure about Ngrams) returns partial contractions, like "I don't Rex."

As one would expect, "Tyrannosaurus" is and always has been used more often than either more specific name, in part because the results return it twice (it is present both on its own, and as part of the binomial "Tyrannosaurus rex"). With such a cool-sounding binomial, it's no surprise that the full name "Tyrannosaurus rex" has been in consistent use since 1905. But, the JP hypothesis looks to be confirmed by the graph for the term "T. rex", which is essentially a flat line until 1988, when the JP novel was published (edit:it was actually published in 1990), and doesn't really take off until the early '90s, coincident with the media and marketing ramp-up to the movie.

However, a closer look at the Google Books sources presents some interesting counter-evidence to the JP hypothesis. Searching Books with the range 1970-1990 (basically the Dinosaur Renaissance period, when I figure "T. rex" is likely to have been popularized) yields several prominent pre-JP uses of the term. Most interesting is the use of "T. Rex" (with a capital 'R', rather than the correct lowercase) in Stephen King's 1988 novel The Tommyknockers. This book came out around the same time as Jurassic Park and so is probably too early to have been influenced by it.

Adjusting for variations in punctuation, I plugged a few different version of "T-Rex" into Ngrams. As I would have guessed, the notoriously incorrect version with a capital R and a hyphen seems to be mainly a post-JP phenomenon. "T. Rex" with a capital R and a full stop, however, had an early burst of popularity between the mid-1970s and early '80s.

And then it hit me. How could I forget? I guess I was blinded by science, because T. rex wasn't popularized by science or Jurassic Park at all. It was popularized by the band!

Yes, '70s glam rock band T. Rex, of "Bang a Gong" fame, seem to be the earliest popular use of the abbreviation. According to their Wikipedia page (I said this was cursory research!), the band started out as Tyrannosaurus Rex but took to calling themselves T. Rex for short, which apparently irritated the lead guitarist/songwriter, who eventually caved and they re-named the band officially to the shorter moniker. To quote Wiki, "Visconti supposedly got fed up with writing the name out in full on studio chits and tapes and began to abbreviate it; when Bolan first noticed he was angry but later claimed the idea was his."

So we might be able to thank Marc Bolan, not Bob Bakker or Michael Crichton, for bringing this (accidentally?) scientific abbreviation into the popular lexicon.

16 comments:

  1. Fortunately the JP shorthand name "Trike" for Triceratops never took on :-)

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  2. Marko: well, "trike" is certainly used when doing field work!

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  3. haha, I always knew it was the band! Thanks for providing the evidence to my suspicion!

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  4. "And then it hit me. How could I forget? I guess I was blinded by science, because T. rex wasn't popularized by science or Jurassic Park at all. It was popularized by the band!"

    Oh my god, you are right.
    What a massive and bizarre unexpected oversight on our behalf.

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  5. I first heard the term "T-Rex" in the "Lost in Dinosaur World" childrens book series, which predated Jurassic Park by a few years.

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  6. Have you read 'Raptor Red' by Bakker? Gosh, it's full of 'raptor's...

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    1. Yes, which is from 1995, five years after Jurassic Park the book, two years after Jurassic Park, the movie. Like Matthew says, Bakker (sort-of) quickly adopted it.

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  7. No question. Jurassic Park did name it. I've read the books and watched the movies many times and was interested in dinosaurs long before both. I started to immediately notice when T.rex began to enter the vernacular and found its overuse rather annoying.

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    1. It's not an "article". It's acutally a book.

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    2. Read the article you are commenting on.

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    3. Er, Tom is referring to Matt's article, not Crichton's book.

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  8. I thought that the novel "Jurassic Park" was first published in 1990 rather than 1988.

    Interestingly, if you plug "T-rex" into Ngrams you'll note two prominent peaks for 1993 and 1997, these being the years that JP and "The Lost World" first hit the screens. There is a smaller bump in 2000, the year before JP III came out.

    It would prob be more informative to be able to conduct a similar search using newspaper articles rather than books.

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    1. Whoops, you're right! Not sure why I thought the book was late '80s...

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    2. You were probably just mixing it up with another book you mentioned, Tommyknockers, which was published in November 1987, but Books and presumably thus Ngrams lists it as 1988.

      Aside from that, though, the setting of Jurassic Park (the book) begins in 1989.

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  9. the t.rex she is called isabelle

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