Mind your language

How are you meant to pronounce Uranus?

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

I had thought there were two pronunciations of Uranus. My husband, still capable of distinguishing the anatomical from the planetary, puts the stress on the first syllable.

The question arose because Lord Bragg on his radio oasis of sense In Our Time was discussing William Herschel, in 1781 the first man to discover a planet.

Herschel at first called it Georgium Sidus, the ‘Georgian planet’. This was to thank his patron George III, who allowed him £200 a year to live near Windsor and show guests the sky’s wonders with the 7ft reflector telescope he had polished into existence, the best in the world.


The Georgian name did not catch on among European astronomers. In France Jérôme de Lalande called it Herschel and Louis Poinsinet de Sivry tried Cybele (the Great Mother). The Swede Erik Prosperin suggested Neptune, eventually given to the planet first seen by telescope in 1846. Uranus, eventually accepted (in 1850 by HM Nautical Almanac Office in Britain), was proposed by the German Johann Bode, who determined its orbit.

Uranus in mythology was the husband of Gaia (Earth) and father of Cronos (Saturn). The Greek ouranos meant sky, and is connected to the Indo-European word that gives us rain and urine. Uranus was castrated by his youngest son Cronos, and his blood fell upon the earth. From the foam in the sea where his genitals fell was born Aphrodite, or Venus by her Roman name.

In 1847, Dickens co-founded Urania Cottage, in Shepherd’s Bush, to house Lady Burdett-Coutts’s fallen women. (The name came already attached, meaning, presumably, ‘heavenly’.) In 1864, Germans coined the name Uranismus, taken up by John Addington Symonds as Uranism, for male homosexuality. It derived from an epithet attached to Aphrodite.

Anyway, I can hardly distinguish all six pronunciations of Uranus. One pair to be differentiated is you-ruh-nuhs (with uh an indeterminate vowel) and yournuhs, where the n serves as a syllable. If you enter the glories of the Oxford English Dictionary online, a voice pronounces each when you click on it, until you can hear the difference. 

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