Who Discovered Uranus (and How Do You Pronounce It)?

Did you ever meet a person and wonder what their parents were thinking when they picked out their child's name? Many people may do the same when they are required to give a presentation on the seventh planet in the solar system. But just how do you pronounce the name of the largest ice giant?

How did Uranus get its name?

The first six planets in the solar system have been visible to observers throughout human history and were named for Roman gods. But because it orbits so far from the sun, Uranus was not visible with the naked eye. In fact, it is the first planet officially identified with a telescope.

"The story of Uranus' discovery is full of people not realizing what they were seeing," according to NASA's SpacePlace website. "People may have seen Uranus as early as 128 B.C. but, each time they saw it, they said it was a star."

Astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. (Image credit: Smithsonian Institution)

Sir William Herschel found the seventh planet on March 13, 1781, while scouring the night sky for comets; he initially thought he'd discovered another icy body. When it came time to propose a moniker, he suggested naming it for his patron, King George III, which would have made it Georgium Sidus, or George's Star. But the name was not widely appreciated outside of England. "Herschel," after its discoverer, was also suggested, as was "Neptune."

Ultimately, German astronomer Johann Elert Bode (whose observations helped to establish the new object as a planet) named Uranus after an ancient Greek god of the sky. Bode argued that as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, the new planet should be named for the father of Saturn. (Uranus is also the only planet to be named after a Greek god rather than a Roman one.) Bode's colleague, Martin Klaproth, supported his choice and named his newly discovered element "uranium."

Even though we know where Uranus is now, it can still be a challenge to find.

"If you were to go out and look [for Neptune], you'd have to know exactly where to look, and you'd still need a telescope to be able to find it," planetary scientist Amy Simon, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said on the NASA Gravity Assist podcast.

Can you pronounce Uranus (without snickering)?

Most people are taught that the name of the tilted planet sounds like "your-anus," a pronunciation sure to elicit snickers. It seems particularly humorous when you discuss the methane composition of Uranus, or you want to talk about how hot Uranus is. (You know you smiled a little.)

According to NASA, most scientists say YOOR-un-us. Unfortunately, because it is so rarely heard outside the walls of academia, it almost seems to call even more attention to the avoided pronunciation.

Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla writes about how, in her former life teaching science to fifth graders, she taught that the second pronunciation was "You're a nuss." She then had her students point to one another and call them a "nuss," which they enjoyed.

"A cop-out? Yes. But at least it got every kid in the room to say the name of the planet out loud, and to do it while thinking about a word that, if nonsensical, was at least not scatological," she wrote. "And we were all able to move on and have a good time exploring the solar system without too much embarrassment over the pronunciation of the name of one of its largest members."

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Nola Taylor Tillman
Contributing Writer

Nola Taylor Tillman is a contributing writer for Space.com. She loves all things space and astronomy-related, and enjoys the opportunity to learn more. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Astrophysics from Agnes Scott college and served as an intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. In her free time, she homeschools her four children. Follow her on Twitter at @NolaTRedd