After Hours

Geek Trivia: Quite a tail to tell

What famous comic strip is responsible for coining the word <em>thagomizer</em>, which has since become the accepted scientific term for the spikes at the end of a Stegosaurus' tail?

What famous comic strip is responsible for coining the word thagomizer, which has since become the accepted scientific term for the spikes at the end of a Stegosaurus' tail?

The Far Side, written by Gary Larson, has long been a favorite comic within the scientific community, so it should come as little surprise that one particular Far Side strip ended up coining a scientific term.

In 1982, Larson published a Far Side that depicted a group of cavemen at a meeting or class, where the leader was pointing to an illustration of a Stegosaurus tail. The strip's caption read: "Now this end is called the thagomizer, after the late Thag Simmons."

At that point in time, there was no generally accepted term for the spikes on a Stegosaurus' tail. Paleontologists just called them something indirect — like, well, tail spikes.

Larson's thagomizer riff proved so popular that scientists began using it as verbal shorthand for this particular bit of dinosaur anatomy — paleontology slang, if you will — and eventually thagomizer became a formally accepted scientific term.

If that doesn't convince you of The Far Side's scientific street cred, bear in mind that Gary Larson also has a species of insect named in his honor. Well, honor might be a bit dubious, as we're speaking of a species of louse that preys on owls: Strigiphilus garylarsoni.

Of course, not all of Larson's interactions with professional scientists have been positive. In 1988, Larson was visiting anthropologist Jane Goodall's research area in Tanzania's Gombe National Park when a chimpanzee attacked him. Goodall described the chimp, which she had named Frodo, as a "bully" — one that managed to bruise and scratch Larson in rather memorable fashion.

This occurred after the Jane Goodall Institute had written Larson to complain about a Far Side strip that lampooned Dr. Goodall's research. The "controversial" strip depicts a pair of chimps grooming each other in a tree. The caption reads: "Well, well... Another blond hair... Conducting a little more 'research' with that Jane Goodall tramp?"

The encounter ended happily, however, as Dr. Goodall herself had found the cartoon in question quite amusing. After clearing up the misunderstanding, Larson made arrangements for the Goodall Institute to sell T-shirts featuring the "Goodall tramp" strip. That's not just self-effacing humor — it's scientifically hilarious Geek Trivia.

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About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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