How to Say Uranus Without Laughing

Limb Of Uranus
Uranus being backlit by the Sun. The cloudtops are a lovely blue, with a few features. This image was taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986 as it swept past. Space Frontiers - Stringer/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The seventh planet from the Sun is a frozen ice giant of a world smothered in a heavy atmosphere. For those reasons, planetary scientists continue to study it with both ground-based and space-based telescopes. The Voyager 2 spacecraft swept past the planet in 1986, giving astronomers their first close-up look at this distant world.

Artist rendering of Uranus Fly-by
Historical / Getty Images

However, Uranus has a problem. Or, rather, humans have a problem with its name. It has long 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 people say it wrong, it sounds really, really naughty. 

While school students have a lot of fun with the name, 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 planet. The question is, though, is all this merriment necessary? And, how DO we say its name?

One Word, Two Uranuses

It turns out that both pronunciations that people use are correct. The classic, potty-mouth version (specifically ū·rā′·nəs, or you-RAY-nuss) places the emphasis on the long "A" sound. That's the one that leads to raised eyebrows, giggling and outright laughter. It's 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. Sure, it almost sounds like "Urine-uss", and that raises the eyebrows among people for whom any mention of bathroom "stuff" is icky. But, honestly, that second pronunciation is much better to use and is more historically accurate.

The name comes from the ancient Greek name for the god of the sky. Read up on Greek gods and mythology to learn more about the planet's namesake. 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 which really IS kind of racy!). 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. 

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. When the Voyager 2 spacecraft rushed past, it sent back views of the planet in different wavelengths of light.

Two views of Uranus from Voyager 2.
Two views of Uranus from Voyager 2. The left image is a "normal" view, showing very little detail in the clouds. With special instruments, Voyager 2 showed us that the pole of the planet was pointing toward the Sun and that there were distinct atmospheric layers. NASA.JPL 

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. 

Pictures of the Moon - Miranda's Geologic History
Pictures of the Uranian moon Miranda, with its unique surface features. NASA/JPL

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. That didn't fly with astronomers in France, who claimed to have discovered it, too. So, eventually, it was named "Uranus", which pleased everybody. 

So, Which Uranus to Use?

So which pronunciation to use? Go with what's comfortable. A sense of humor about the whole thing helps. Remember that the planet is gassy, but those gases are mostly of hydrogen and helium, with some methane here and there. And, here's a final thought: far from being a huge joke, Uranus turns out to be a repository of important building blocks of the solar system! That ​and its position out beyond Saturn keep planetary scientists busy trying to understand its fascinating characteristics.