Why Uranus is funny (and how to pronounce it properly)

There’s a planet in our solar system that’s the butt of far too many jokes. You know the one (and yes, I said ‘butt’). Nobody pronounces its name properly. Some say it’s ‘Your Anus’ (there, I said it). Others say it’s ‘Urine-us’ (there, I said that too).

I know. Lame. And I can’t wait until the 26th century when, according to Hubert J Farnsworth, it’s going to be changed to ‘Urectum’ to get rid of those silly digestive system jokes. But luckily there’s a better way to escape the torment of being trapped in a solar system filled with potty humour.

Infrared composite images of Uranus made in 2004 by the Keck telescope, with adaptive optics. Uranus is extremely uninteresting at visible light wavelengths. NASA, Public Domain.

Turns out the way we pronounce Uranus isn’t strictly correct either way. Uranus is the Latinised spelling of the original Greek word Ouranos (Οὐρανός/Sky), a significant god in their pantheon. When the German astronomer William Herschel first discovered the planet in 1781 he wanted to prove how loyal an Englishman he was by naming it after the King, George III (also a German), as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. The Royal Society, however, under their action-hero super-scientist Joseph Banks, had other ideas, and they were not alone in the scientific community of the day. (I’ll explain the ‘action hero’ bit another time, it’s to do with an adventure on Tahiti, and yes, Banks really was a super-scientist of his day.)

The name took a while to shake down, but the 1783 proposal of Johann Elert Bode to call the planet Uranus led the pack, and by about the mid-nineteenth century, Uranus (Ouranos) had become the usual term for the planet. That original spelling is also a clue as to how it’s pronounced. Just as ‘Zeus, father of Diana of Themyscira’ is Anglicised as ‘Zoos’ or ‘Zews’, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on – but was probably pronounced ‘Zay-os’ originally, so Uranus is Anglicised as – well, I won’t repeat the jokes. But was originally pronounced oːranós, which we might phoneticise as ‘ooraanAWs’, or, possibly, ‘oh-rahn-os’.

Now you know. And it’s important, because NASA has been contemplating a mission to the planet. That’s right. NASA’s quite possibly going to – er – deep-probe Uranus.

That’s ‘Oh-rahn-os’. Stop laughing at the back, there.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021


7 thoughts on “Why Uranus is funny (and how to pronounce it properly)

    1. Oh, I will. I have a very cool astronomy package called ‘Universe’ that can simulate Uranus hitting Earth. That said (and without checking) I suspect the answer is ‘everybody dies horribly in less than 30 minutes’.

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  1. Oh dear…I’m terrible, just laughed at all of those jokes. 😀 😀 😀 I am surprised though. Didn’t they have potty jokes back then? Or were the scientists of the day too…refined…to know?
    I usually pronounce Uranos as You-rain-us. Not sure I’ll be able to retrain my ear to the Ooh.

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    1. I have to admit I prefer the incorrect pronounciation, owing to it being such a useful way of making some really terrible jokes. 🙂 As far as I am aware the humble chamber pot was source of a great deal of hilarity in the 18th century. Whether the scientists joined in or not I’m not sure, but as Banks was in his mid-20s when he was catapulted to the top ranks via Cook’s first voyage, I’d guess he found such things as funny as everybody else.

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    1. The best part is that I can’t see the seventh planet getting a new name any time soon, meaning the solar system’s going to have a built-in joke of the lamest kind for generations to come. I quite like the idea! 🙂

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