“Thagomizer” is a term coined in a “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson in which a caveman points to the pointy, macelike end of a stegosaurus’ tail and names it in honor of “the late Thad Simmons.” Larson remains the most honored cartoonist among scientists, and, since that cartoon, paleontologists regularly refer to the stegosaurus’ thagomizers. The last dinosaurs and first humans are millions of years apart, and Larson’s last cartoon ran in 1995, but a decade later paleontologists presented the first strong evidence that stegosaurus tails were actually used as defensive thagomizers: an allosaurus tailbone that had been punctured by a sharp projectile the exact shape and size as thagomizer prongs.
In 2017, a University of Utah evolutionary parasitologist named Dale Clayton discovered a new chewing louse that exists only in south African white-faced owl feathers, decided to name it “Strigiphilus garylarsoni” after Larson, and wrote the cartoonist for permission to do so. Larson’s publisher, who was finalizing a 10th anniversary edition of “The Prehistory of The Far Side,” responded positively and requested to use Clayton’s letter and his hand-drawn and microscopic garylarsoni images.
Clayton obliged and prepared his scientific paper announcing his discovery. However, the anniversary book was published prior to his paper, so Clayton’s paper had to cite Larson’s book instead of vice versa, but being a Larson fan, Clayton was amused. The 2.5 million copies of Larson’s book had hundreds of tiny s. garylarsoni on each page resulting in over a billion louse images, probably making it “the most replicated scientific illustration in history,” according to Utah University.
Larson planned on biology in college, but “I didn’t want to go to school for more than four years, and I didn’t know what you did with a bachelor’s degree in biology,” he said in a NYTimes.com article titled “Aficionado of Science,” so he studied communications instead. “It was one of the most idiotic things I ever did,” Larson recalled, because entomology, the study of insects, “is my fantasy, the road not taken.”
Larson became a professional banjoist after college, then took up jazz guitar in the early 1970s. He was considered by a prominent jazz group but lost out, and “crushed with disappointment, Mr. Larson spent the weekend drawing cartoons. On Monday he took them to a small California magazine, and the magazine bought them all. Two years later, in 1979, he signed a contract with The San Francisco Chronicle to do a cartoon panel six days a week; the publisher dubbed it ‘The Far Side.’”
A recent internet meme printed on a bug drawing reads: “People who don’t know the difference between entomology and etymology bug me in ways I cannot put into words.” Being recently snowbound for several days, while appreciating a good woodstove, well-stocked pantry and being surrounded by millions of wonderfully arranged words, I read “Beyond the Far Side” and the “Climate” edition of Lapham’s Quarterly. Its “Weather-Bound Books: Storms and squalls as literary devices” article has subsections like, “Matchmaker: Coops up potential lovers until sparks fly” that describes Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774): “When a storm interrupts a village dance, Werther hunkers down with Charlotte,” and Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (1813): “Drenched by a rainstorm, Jane Bennet recovers at the Bingley house, setting into motion two love stories.”
Speaking of form, journalists and other writers often refer to style books to guide their spelling and usage. The Associated Press Stylebook for Alaska, for instance, advises writers to hyphenate “snow-blind” and “sno-go,” but separate “snow fence” and “snow bunny,” but not “snowdrift.” Katherine Viner, the first female editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper, recently altered that publication’s stylebook “to ensure we are being scientifically precise and rooted in fact while also communicating clearly with readers … Therefore, we would like to change the terms we use as follows: Use ‘climate emergency,’ ‘crisis,’ or ‘breakdown’ instead of climate change. Use ‘global heating’ instead of ‘global warming’ … Use ‘climate-science denier’ or ‘climate denier’ instead of ‘climate skeptic.’ The original terms are not banned, but do think twice before using them.”
Perhaps our local Climate Change Task Force should consider a more realistic name change, too. Until we go the way of the dinosaurs, “thagomizer’s” still OK.
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.