Uranus has long been a source of delight to schoolboys…
Wait, let’s try that again.
No matter which way you pronounce our solar system’s seventh planet — “Your anus,” “Urine-us,” or the somewhat more iambic, “You’re on us” — they all yield a giddy chuckle when subjected to headlines like, “Methane Found in Uranus.” But what if you’re, say, dining with Neil deGrasse Tyson, hoping to impress him so he doesn’t flex you to death with his huge guns for crimes against the universe?
Here then is how to approach Uranus with caution.
It turns out that science is cool with you saying either, “your-RAY-nuss” or “YOU-reh-nuss.” You could even get away with trying a more traditional Greek pronunciation (despite most of the planets taking their names from figures in Roman mythology, Uranus was the Greek god personification of the sky) and call it something like “OOH-ran-ohs” or even “er-AH-nuss.” Vowels — of which Uranus has many — tend to be the biggest difference in accents, which makes it harder to pin to a “correct” pronunciation.
Still, you’re not crazy: People are generally saying it different to how you remember. We all grew up calling it “your anus,” so when did it morph into its more superficially respectable current state?
As early as 1920, the Oxford English Dictionary referred to it as, “you-ran-us,” like a proper English sentence. But by 1980, Merriam-Webster had noted the slight shift to “YOOR-uh-nus” among both astronomers and those who worship Greek deities. Somewhere between those two dates, we all picked up the habit of pronouncing it the dirty way regardless — probably because it was more fun, but also because it’s closer to a phonetic pronunciation of its spelling in American English.
The wider population (us dummies) took little heed of the dictionary change until the planet started hitting the news again once the space program picked up. As one commenter here describes it:
“Uranus was changed to ‘URINE-us’ in 1986 (? — maybe ’85) when one of the space probes was preparing to do its fly-by. Newscasters around the country realized that three weeks of ‘your-anus’ would never work, especially when also tossing in the reference to a ‘deep space probe.’”
When, in the 1990s, Uranus was reclassified from a gas giant to an ice giant alongside Neptune, owing to its composition of hydrogen, helium and (tee hee!) methane, this news anchor-friendly pronunciation stuck. School children everywhere, meanwhile, whispered about the conspiracy theory that stodgy scientists were just trying to smush the fun out of astronomy, as they would later do on a more drastic level by reducing Pluto to the status of dwarf planet.
Of course, all of this extremely anal back-and-forth could’ve been avoided if the legend about its discoverer, astronomer William Herschel, trying to name it after his monarch, King George, was true (it’s sadly not). It would, admittedly, have made for the odd procession of “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, GEORGE” (or maybe Sylvester?) But hey, we could work with that.
Long story short, they really did change it just to stop you from giggling. So if you do ever get the chance to dine with Neil deGrasse Tyson, be sure to go with “YOUR in us.”