Senator Jason vs. the Protoceratops

I saw a thread on Reddit that asked, “I live in the bible belt and until age 14, because there are so many Jesus fish I thought it was a logo for a car company. Reddit, what misconceptions have you had in your childhood?

The easy answer, of course, is being told about supernatural beings like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Jesus … only to be informed later that two of the three don’t really exist.  But I have a couple that I suppose are only unique to me.  Thankfully.

Part of growing up involves both the formation of beliefs based on misunderstood premises and the inevitable – and often sudden – realization of that fact in situations that you very much hope provides a minimal level of embarrassment, preferably in private.  Take, for example, the time I heard the following exchange right before kindergarten class dismissal for the summer:

My kindergarten Teacher:  “Well, we’re ready to dismiss; are you ready on your end?”
Office Secretary:  “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be!”
Kindergarten Me:  “‘… ready as a lever bee?’  What the hell is a lever bee??”

I’d like to point out that my Verbal Network Censor was probably a little more judicious back then than it is today, thus preventing one last ‘hurrah’ at the principal’s office before the summer break and an imminent ass-kicking on the home front.  I’m not sure why I used this filter with such care when talking to my parents – especially my father – since I learned every bit of profanity and a cutting variety of creative applications (both in English and even some in Italian) from my old man who, much like Jean Shepherd’s father, works with it like famous Renaissance artists would work with marble, clay, or oils.  I almost considered a career in law to hone this ability to a razor sharpness, but I couldn’t bear the thought of actually studying Latin and sitting through law school to do it.  So, it was demoted to more of a part time hobby.  Meanwhile, the position of Verbal Network Censor has apparently been outsourced to a stoner living just outside Bangalore who knows just enough English to get his face slapped in a bar.  As you can imagine, my language is a lot dirtier than it used to be, but at least I’m helping the economy.  Anyway.

My other favorite example, much to the delight of my father who now tells it to anyone who is in the house for more than seven minutes, is what I call the Keansburg Incident, which, as far as I can tell, had its roots in a conversation we had when I was about three.  He had recently bought a record (yes, a vinyl one) of the Muppet Frog Prince.  For those of you who know what I’m talking about when I say, “Bake the hall in the candle of her brain!”, I salute you.  Anyway, the ending results in the handle of Taminella’s cane being broken and her being turned into a crow, who flies off, never to be seen again.

3 Year Old Me:  “Where a witch go?”
Dad:  “Huh?”
3 Year Old Me:  “Where a witch go?”
Dad:  “Uhh … she went to Keansburg.”

Maybe she had family there, who knows.  This exchange was quickly forgotten by my father, but was just as rapidly assimilated into my brain’s fledgling Wikipedia subject folder of “Witches”.  Over time, the entry evolved to look something like this:

Witch:  a person, now esp. a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic, esp. black magic or the black art; sorceress.

See also:  Salem Witch Trials
See also:  Biblical / historical references
See also:  Fictional references
See also:  Keansburg, NJ

The puzzle was finally put together about 20 years later during a family meal when I offhandedly asked about the strange association I had with the two, and my father just started laughing at me.  I will leave the rest of this particular story to the imagination of the reader, but it involved a small food fight, an impromptu wrestling match, and a brief chase down the street that ended at the liquor store.

So what does any of this have to do with dinosaurs?  I’m glad you asked.

Around the same time I was under the impression that the leverbee was the more punctual cousin to the ubiquitous honeybee, I took part in a “Gifted and Talented” program that essentially resulted in my getting more work to do than the average student, but with no measurable reward system for a job well done.  (Welcome to the salaried working world. )  It’s not difficult to imagine that one of the first, and most popular, subjects for any young child entering a program where they can study anything they want is DINOSAURS.  Hell, I’m getting excited about them just writing about this.  We obviously started with the meat eaters … you know, Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Velociraptor ** … as sort of the ‘hook’ to get us in before springing the wimpy plant eaters and the entire subject of paleontology on us.  The first hit’s always free.  Even then, I reasoned that getting into the study of fossil-finding and a full working knowledge of dinosaur species was certainly the only way to learn anything … though at the time, I didn’t really consider many of the herbivores individual ‘species’ as much as menu items for those higher up on the food chain.

(** A related issue also arose during my first cursory exposure to the dictionary’s loyal companion, the Thesaurus, which originally led me to believe for a significant portion of my youth that Noah Webster was not only an accomplished lexicographer, but one of the earliest pioneers in the field of paleontology.

For a short time afterward, I had a tendency to put the -saurus suffix on words or ideas that carried a certain degree of intimidating academic complexity.  This resulted in my naming – under pressure of performance – one of the books of the Bible in such a fashion (“Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, …. umm … Numbers … uhh … Deu … ter … oh … nim … bo … strat … o … saurus?”), resulting in hysterical laughter from the Peanut Gallery and an eye crossing blow to the back of the head with the same rolled up soft-cover King James Bible used to punish Little Miss Anti-Semite from yesterday.)

Do Not Touch. Love, Nature

My attitude towards herbivores changed – albeit gradually – when I discovered that many of the prehistoric plant eaters were not quite like those we have today.  (I’m thinking along the line of cows, who appear to have just enough brain power to eat and poop.)  I mean, some of their defense mechanisms were pretty cool, like Stegosaurus, who had spikes on his tail and giant arrowheads coming out of its back.  Or ankylosaurus, who had a hard, tortoise like shell on its back, a helmet, and a ball on the end of its tail.  Hell, we built armored vehicles like that now.  I also fought some of them in Final Fantasy, so I know they’re tough.  They don’t carry gold, though.

Then came the horned dinosaurs:  Triceratops, Styrachosaurus, Monoclonius, and the one who paved the way … the one who blazed the trail that others might walk in the millions of years that followed … was Protoceratops.  In reading about them at the time (though I provide the caveat that the books I was reading still listed “brontosaurus”, not the updated “apatasaurus”, as a real dinosaur) I discovered that Protoceratops was named thusly because it was the “first of the horned dinosaurs”, and it went on to show me a picture that looked something this:


I paused, and grabbed another book.  “This has to be a mistake,” I thought to myself.  “Obviously, if you’re going to call something a horned dinosaur, it’s got to have horns, right?”  No dice.

Even at the age of six – and again, maybe it was the fact that my dad’s a lawyer – I had a keen nose for bullshit.  But apparently it was selective, since this marked the first time calling it.  The exchange went something like this:

Me:  “Why is a dinosaur with no horns called the ‘first’ of something it’s not?”
Teacher:  “Well, that’s because other dinosaurs that had horns evolved from that one.”
Me:  “But this one doesn’t have any.  How can it be called the first of something when it doesn’t have that which would make it the first?”
Teacher:  “Because horned dinosaurs are built the same way that guy was.”
Me:  “Except they had horns. Doesn’t that make all the difference?”

We went around in circles like this for a while.  My teacher didn’t seem to grasp where I had the problem, and meanwhile I put this level of idea association in the same category as calling yourself a deep sea diver after falling face first into a kiddie pool.  In later years, I realized that there was, in fact, some small wisdom in the naming convention they used:  though this little guy didn’t have horns, per se, he was their precursor, and did have many of the characteristics shared by all of the horned dinosaurs that followed, thus making it the first of that TYPE, albeit not technically one itself.

This didn’t assuage my feeling of resentment at the fact that a few liberties were taken in the taxonomic nomenclature, but it did make me realize how nonsensical the young mind can work sometimes.  After some consideration, it didn’t surprise me that I naturally took for granted that lever bees were just another kind of pollen collector, witches had a coven right outside Sandy Hook, and that Noah Webster spent his free time digging up dinosaur eggs, but I vehemently questioned the one bit of knowledge that was actually true, but probably the least believable in the developing mind of a 6 year old.

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4 Responses to Senator Jason vs. the Protoceratops

  1. Richard says:

    We have some similar issues in astronomy, where sometimes details are found out about the objects of a class such that the “class namer” no longer strictly has those characteristics. For example, “BL Lac objects” were claimed to have blue, non-thermal spectra with no visible emission lines. Later, more sensitive spectra discovered weak emission lines in BL Lac itself, so they had to revise the definition to “weak or absent emission lines”. Taxonomy is hard when you keep discovering new things all the time.

    • I’m a little more forgiving now than I used to be with things like this … especially since around the same time we were also introduced to some of the more creative words in the English language like “colonel” and “Arkansas”, and were expected to believe they had sounded nothing like they looked.

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