Heh heh: Uranus!

No other celestial body has been so generous to the English language in terms of puns as Uranus, owing to its pronunciation. But you’ve probably noticed that there are two common pronunciations: Uranus (/jʊərənəs/, emphasis on the first syllable), and Uranus (/jʊreənəs/, emphasis on the second syllable: look, this is the one that sounds like your anus). Which one is correct?

Well, both of them are fine, but astronomers prefer the first. Because it’s closer to the original Latin pronunciation, but also no doubt because it doesn’t make anyone snigger.

That’s that settled, but why is the planet called Uranus in the first place? That’s actually a surprisingly complicated story.

Uranus was first discovered to be a planet in 1781 when it was observed by William Herschel. It was the first planet to be discovered in the modern era (everything as far out as Saturn had been observed by Ancient Babylonian astronomers in the second millennium BC). As the planet was discovered during an age of philsophy in Europe, there was therefore much discussion of how to name it. 70 years of discussion, in fact.

Herschel originally planned to name it Georgium Sidus (George’s planet), after his new patron, King George III of Great Britain. Understandably though, this didn’t prove very popular outside Britain. One astronomer suggested Herschel’s Planet, and another Neptune. Uranus was first suggested by German astronomer Johann Elert Bode in 1782, and gained acceptance over time, though this was not unanimous until 1850, when Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office of Britain finally accepted.

Uranus is the Latin name for the father of the Titans (Οὐρανός in Ancient Greek), a race of Greek gods pre-dating the classical Olympian pantheon. Bode saw an elegance in naming the planet Uranus, as Saturn had been the father of Jupiter, and Uranus the father.

It’s just a pity he couldn’t have predicted the inelegance of the puns the childish among us would make of the name!

6 thoughts on “Uranus

  1. I’m curious as to why Οὐρανός has two accents. Every polysyllabic word in Greek has an accent to indicate the main stress. Maybe this was different in Classical Greek, and they used more than one?

    But either way we look at it, they have judiciously avoided putting the stress on the the 2nd syllable. Those Ancient Greeks were a clever lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting, I can’t say I know enough about Classical Greek to say for sure. A couple of my students were quite knowledgeable about Ancient Greek, and we actually discussed which pronunciation of ‘Uranus’ would have been closest to the original Greek in our last lesson. Pity term is finished or I might’ve got an answer.


  2. Some colleagues had an email conversation about Uranus last weeks. I tried to find the original pronunciation of the Greek god, but couldn’t (as far as I know, ancient Greek pronunciation does not use schwas). Do you know?


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