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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

raptor

(1990’s | “dinosaur”)

At least a few of my readers are young and may not realize that for most of its life, “raptor” had nothing to do with dinosaurs. Nothing. It’s the first thing we think of now because of a certain film (recently sequelized for the fourth time), preceded by a certain book, that made the velociraptor, soon shortened for convenience to “raptor,” an unforgettable villain — even though the design of the velociraptors in the film was based on a different species of dinosaur, says Wikipedia. The original meaning of “raptor,” dating back to the seventeenth century, is “rapist” or “robber.” The word began flocking with predatory birds (not any other kind of animal, for some reason) in the second half of the nineteenth century, saith the OED. It appears under that definition in Webster’s Second (1934 edition), but not in any of my older dictionaries, although some related words do, like “raptorial” and “Raptores.” As late as 1980, it was not unusual for reporters to gloss the word when they used it, and I don’t remember learning it in school, though I may have. The classification encompassed majestic hawks and eagles and lowlier owls and vultures; now new family trees and relationships have been codified. “Raptor” has not surrendered its old meaning, so it applies now to both birds and dinosaurs with equal tenacity.

Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” was published in 1990, but the floodgates didn’t open until Spielberg’s film version opened in June 1993. Suddenly raptors were everywhere, not the old familiar birds of prey, but spiffy new animatronic dinosaurs instead! (As paleontologists love to remind us, birds and dinosaurs are closely related.) Now, Raptors are everywhere: an NBA team, a sub-model of Ford Ranger pickups, a fighter jet. My favorite: Raptor Eggs were a kind of candy created to coincide with the original film’s release, described by the Associated Press as “orange-flavored chewy eggs” (presumably merely egg-shaped, not actual eggs). I was too old to be paying attention to candy trends by then, but I’ll bet I’d remember them if I were twenty years younger.

While I’m slinging taxonomies around, “raptor” belongs to a select group: new expressions from movies. Over time, I have concluded that this category holds fewer members than most of us think; of the 450 or so expressions I have covered to date, only a few became widespread after being used in movies: “bucket list, “wingman,” “don’t go there,” “you’re toast,” “meltdown,” “perfect storm,” “-whisperer.” Like “raptor,” all were available before appearing in the film that made them famous.

The old words are the best words, to adapt an old proverb, and “raptor” is a fine example. In the last paragraph of the entry on “task,” I listed a number of expressions that had been around for a long time before bursting into recent prominence. A few expressions, such as “ramp up” and “overthink,” are as old or older, but none has quite the same evolutionary trail as “raptor,” which gained wings in the nineteenth century and then lost them again in the late twentieth, acquiring a new primary definition which later underwent a significant mutation. “Hurtful” and a few others had a long period of relative eclipse and emerged in the second half of the twentieth century as new words; “bloviate” all but disappeared in the mid-twentieth century but has come roaring back. “Raptor” never went away, but those old-time biologists would never have guessed that some day it would be in the mouth of every child, the coolest dinosaur of them all.

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