January 17, 2004
Etymological Lightbulb

Robert Musil's post on mammoths and mastodons reminded me of my last visit to Monticello in 1996 or thereabouts. One of the treasures of the collection was a mastodon jawbone Jefferson had collected, with a few grinding teeth still attached. Like most molars, these had conical bumps for grinding. To be more precise, they were bulging cones, or something between a cone and a hemisphere -- again, nothing unusual. However, unlike most molars, these had little nubs at the tip. When I saw them I couldn't help exclaiming "so that's why they're called 'mastodons'!". I had never thought about the name before, but it is obviously Greek for 'breast-tooth': mast- (as in "mastectomy") means "breast", while -odon means "tooth". It may seem odd to name a huge hairy beast after an unobtrusive feature of its dental apparatus, but I suppose that's the point that separates mastodons from the other extinct members of the order of elephants (Proboscidea).

Posted by Dr. Weevil at January 17, 2004 07:19 AM

Actually I suspect they named Mastodon after his teeth because that's the part they saw the most of. Teeth are tough and make good fossils. Iguanodon was so named not because that was more descriptive than "Huge fricking reptile-cow with a weird thumb", but because teeth are what Mantell found.

Posted by: Elissa Caffery on January 29, 2004 07:07 PM