When I saw this word, it caught my attention immediately. It seemed like a possible nickname for a girl, sort of like Anna Banana (and it occurs to me it might seem like a rather naughty nickname, for a girl purported to say “I wanna”). But I also immediately thought of the swampy South – way down upon the Swanee River, perhaps, or oh! Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me, I’ve come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee. Or maybe there’s a river, down near which is Suzanne’s place, where she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.
I admit the image of the swampy South and the river may have been influenced by the picture I was looking at. It’s a triptych – not of the Biblical Susanna being preyed on by some reptilian old men, but of life in a particular place at three sequential times: specifically, before, during, and after the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, about 56 million years ago in what is now Wyoming. If you have the October 2011 issue of National Geographic, you can see it for yourself.
It’s one of those beautiful reconstructions that seem so vivid, you might not stop to wonder how they managed to figure it all out and put it all together. To the left and to the right are swamps like Okefenokee, someplace near a river. In the middle is a drier, more arid scene. And perched on a tree on the right side of the middle panel is a small mammal with its catch, a lizard dangling from its mouth. The caption explains: “Raccoonlike Chriacus, a Paleocene holdover, preys here on a new arrival from the south.” The creatures are all labelled. The label next to the dangling lizard, soon to be lunch, is Suzanniwana.
Really, isn’t it a pretty, eye-catching name? The lizard, an iguanid, is itself a pleasant enough thing to look at, but its markings don’t quite match the zig-zags of z and w and the visible scales of u nn n. I had to know how it had been put together. By “it” do you wonder whether I mean the lizard or the name? Well, both, really.
You may not be surprised to learn that both were put together by the same person. OK, the lizard itself originally was not assembled by a human, but a human put together the bones that had been found and figured out how they fit together and what sort of a critter they made, and then he named it. It turns out that that human is a fellow named Krister Smith, a California-born vertebrate paleontologist, at the time a grad student at Yale, now at the Senckenburg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt (Germany). You can read all about his findings in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, volume 7, issue 3, in his article “A new lizard assemblage from the earliest Eocene (Zone Wa0) of the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, USA: Biogeography during the warmest interval of the Cenozoic.”
You probably wouldn’t find most of the article your kind of reading. It’s a very detailed exposition of the different reptiles found: the bits of bones (with pictures) and a detailed textual description of the physical characteristics of the fragments in exquisitely technical terms (“The subnarial arterial foramen, from which issues a shallow groove anteriorly, is located near the medial margin of the premaxillary process just lateral to the low crista transversalis,” to give a brief example), plus an overall description going by what other similar creatures it differs from and how:
An iguanid lizard differing from Iguaninae, Hoplocercinae, Crotaphytinae, Oplurinae, Phrynosomatinae and Tropidurinae in having weak to moderate supraorbital flanges variably developed on frontal (rarely in some Phrynosomatinae and Tropidurinae). Differs from foregoing list (except some Iguaninae) plus Polychrus and Leiosaurini (sensu Schulte et al. 2003) in having a Y-shaped parietal table. Differs from foregoing list except Hoplocercinae and some Iguaninae in having a moderate to broad, parallel-sided nasal process on premaxilla.
Et cetera, at length. So from all those bits, somehow a whole came together, and from that textual description an artist managed a nice visual representation. Imagine the same for all the other animals and plants in the illustration. That picture is worth rather more than a thousand words!
And how did the word Suzanniwana come together? From easier bits, to be sure: “After Suzanne Strait – friend of lizards, excavator of the Castle Gardens fauna – who kindly allowed me to study the fossils described herein; and iwana, Caribbean root of Spanish iguana (from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)).” It may not be the origin of species, but it is the origin of the genus name: a bit of linguistic archaeology for the Caribbean word (an older form of the word for an older form of the creature), plus the name of a biological anthropologist and paleomammalogist who teaches at Marshall University and who was named after a young woman from the Bible who was ogled by old men. Smith does given the origin of the species name, too: the lizard is specifically Suzanniwana patriciana, and the eponymous Patricia – a name that glancingly refers to old men in Latin – is “Patricia Holroyd – wordsmith, provocateur, facilitator – in recognition of her contribution to Eocene herpetology.” She’s a paleontologist who teaches at Berkeley. Oh, and note the personal touch: this lizard is not, after all, Straitiwana holroydiana. This suggests that the two were (and presumably are), for Smith, friends, not just colleagues to be dined out on. And, as Smith has confirmed to me in an email, close friends of each other too: “the generic and specific names honor two scientists who also happen to be close friends. Thus, they’re united now for as long as biological taxonomy continues to exist.”
Well. It’s easier to do a dig on modern words than on ancient critters, isn’t it? Although, of course, much etymological research is far more involved, and people are still arguing over the origins of words some of which are hardly a century old. It’s amazing to think of the work required to reconstruct, for instance, Proto-Indo-European roots. And, as Krister Smith said in his email to me, “Linguistic phylogeny is often so like the biological sort, and I delight in finding little cognates between languages, like ‘abide’ (which has no cognate in German that I know) and ‘bo’ (Swedish, to live/dwell, which otherwise seems so ‘out of nowhere’).”
Indeed, the most fascinating part with language is the natural process of it: how we have these bits still in use, though much changed over time, that have come down to us from time immemorial, how we arrange them and rearrange them not just to figure things out but to create entirely new things, and how we determine the sense of our words and concepts by what other words and concepts they’re like and how they differ from them. Every word is like another Suzanniwana… being described by and in terms of still more of these lovely little lizards of language.