How Is Uranus Pronounced?

Uranus
Uranus in an image from the Voyager 2 flyby in 1986. The dark spots are storms and the white spots are high, thin cirrus clouds. NASA

The seventh planet from the Sun has always been the butt of jokes ranging from classroom giggles to much more explicit commentary on the late-night talk shows. Why? Because it has a name that, if you say it wrong, sounds really, really naughty. 

You expect the laughter from school children, but discussions about Uranus even elicit giggles from college students and adults at live planetarium star lectures.

It's understandable, even at the same time that astronomers and teachers privately roll their eyes when they have to teach about the place. The question is, though, is all this merriment necessary? As it turns out the preferred pronunciation of Uranus doesn't sound funny at all.

Uranus is Really Fascinating

It's really too bad that people have to be so squirrelly the name of one of the more fascinating worlds in the solar system. If they look beyond the name, they would learn cool information a world that rolls around the Sun on its side and periodically points one pole or the other directly at us. That gives the planet some strange (and very long) seasons, which stirs up some interesting clouds high in its atmosphere. The Voyager 2 spacecraft rushed past the planet back in 1986 and sent back images of those storms. It also checked out the strange little moons of Uranus, which all appear to be frozen, cratered, and in a few cases, have very odd-looking surfaces.

 

Uranus itself is classified as an "ice giant" world. That doesn't mean it's actually made completely of ice. Its interior is a small rocky worldlet (maybe about the size of Earth) surrounded by a layer of ammonia, water, ammonia, and methane ices. Above that are the atmospheric layers, which are made mostly of hydrogen, helium, and methane gases; the topmost layer is made of clouds, and there are ice particles there, too.

That qualifies as a pretty interesting world in anybody's book, regardless of WHAT it's called! 

Finding Uranus

Another secret about Uranus? Not so mysterious really; this world was discovered by British astronomer and musical composer William Herschel, back in 1781. He wanted to name it after his patron, King George III, but due to some politics between England and France, it eventually become "Uranus", which at least pleased everybody. 

However, since this IS an article about how you pronounce the name, let's get to it. 

One Word, Two Uranuses

It turns out that both pronunciations are correct. The classic, potty-mouth version (specifically ū·rā′·nəs, or you-RAY-nuss) places the emphasis on the long "A" sound, is what leads to raised eyebrows, giggling and outright laughter. This is the pronunciation that most planetarium lecturers, for example, don't even want to talk about in front of an audience. Which is probably why kids still ask about it and adults still snicker when they hear it.

The other pronunciation (ūr′·ə·nəs) places the emphasis on the long "U" while the long "A" sound is replaced with an "uh" as in "YOU-ruh-nuss". As it turns out this pronunciation is the one preferred among academics.

That's partly because it's derived from the ancient Greek name for the god of the sky. If you're interested in Greek gods and mythology, Uranus was considered one of the most basic gods. He was married to the Earth mother Gaia (and, quite interestingly, he was also her son.) They had children who became the first Titans, and were ancestors of all the other Greek gods who followed. Because Greek mythology is of interest to scholars and because Greek names are scattered throughout astronomical nomenclature, using the Greek pronunciation is more academically pleasing. Of course, it's also less embarrassing. Pronouncing it "YOU-ruh-nuss" stops the students from snickering. Or so people hope. 

So, How Do You Like Uranus? 

So which one should you use? Well, it's up to you. Eventually, you will choose a pronunciation that doesn't send people into peals of laughter, particularly if you're a teacher or a professor trying to teach a lesson about the seventh planet.

Most scientists use the "YOU-ruh-nuss", but not because it sounds less dirty. Not that any of the words ARE dirty, but people are funny sometimes, and they get offended by technical language that they think might be suggestive. Suffice to say, the second pronunciation is more in line with the scientific tendency to use the original Greek names and pronounce them correctly. 

Of course, if you just want to get a laugh you can always pronounce it the other way. If standup comedy is your thing, don't forget to point out that Uranus is large and gassy!  You won't be wrong! It is gassy, but not the gases you're thinking of. Uranus is made mostly of hydrogen and helium, with some methane here and there, but most of the rest of the planet is icy. And, here's a final thought: from being a huge joke, Uranus turns out to be a repository of important building blocks of the solar system! 

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Millis, John P., Ph.D. "How Is Uranus Pronounced?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-is-uranus-pronounced-3074101. Millis, John P., Ph.D. (2017, June 22). How Is Uranus Pronounced? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-is-uranus-pronounced-3074101 Millis, John P., Ph.D. "How Is Uranus Pronounced?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-is-uranus-pronounced-3074101 (accessed January 16, 2018).