How Uranus Got Its Name

How the Solar System’s seventh planet became the butt of the joke.

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Uranus. When William Herschel discovered this curious ice giant exactly 235 years ago, on March 13, 1781, it marked the first time anyone had identified a new planet since the dawn of astronomical observation. To call the discovery momentous would be an understatement: It was a nothing less than a paradigm shift that added new dimension to the Solar System.

In an ideal world, Uranus would have been entitled to an illustrious name to match its unique historical pedigree. Instead, to the delight of schoolchildren around the world,

the planet was saddled with a homonym for a butthole, modified by a second personal possessive pronoun. No matter how many times scientists insist that the emphasis should be on the first syllable, Uranus is forever the butt of the joke when it comes to studying the Solar System.

But though Uranus sounds like it was named during a frantic frat house bender, it actually took nearly 70 years for it to become the globally-accepted term for the seventh planet. The name that Herschel himself chose and preferred for the new world was Georgium Sidus—which translates to the Georgian, or George's Star—in honor of his benefactor King George III.

Artwork depicting William Herschel, accompanied by his sister Caroline, discovering Uranus on March 13, 1781. Image: Paul Fouché

"In the fabulous ages of ancient times the appellations of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were given to the Planets, as being the names of their principal heroes and divinities," Herschel explained in a letter to Royal Society president Joseph Banks, following the discovery.

"In the present more philosophical era it would hardly be allowable to have recourse to the same method and call it Juno, Pallas, Apollo or Minerva, for a name to our new heavenly body. The first consideration of any particular event, or remarkable incident, seems to be its chronology: if in any future age it should be asked, when this last-found Planet was discovered? It would be a very satisfactory answer to say, 'In the reign of King George the Third.'"

However, while King George III was a generous patron in Herschel's eyes, he was widely reviled as a tyrant outside of Britain's borders, so the name did not sit right with scientists on an international level. In the years following Herschel's discovery, several experts jumped in to suggest more palatable names for the new world.

French astronomer Jérôme Lalande, for instance, suggested the planet simply be named Herschel after its discoverer, while Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli proposed the name Hypercronius, meaning "above Saturn." Another popular idea was Cybele, after Saturn's wife. Swedish astronomer Erik Prosperin, meanwhile, offered the name Neptune, which would eventually be employed in naming the eight planet, discovered in 1846.

But ultimately, it was German astronomer Johann Elert Bode who would seal Uranus's fate as the most chortle-worthy of planets. For some reason, Bode was a pretty big fan of the name Uranus, and not just for planets. Bode entitled his own masterpiece starmap Uranographia, and he was also the inspiration for chemist Martin Klaproth's choice to name the 92nd element "uranium."

Evidently, the guy was some kind of Uranus evangelist, which explains why he wrote a treatise in March 1782 suggesting that the planet take this awkward name. His reasoning was that in mythology, Jupiter is fathered by Saturn, and Saturn is fathered by Caelus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Uranus. It's not clear why Bode ignored the Roman-centric rules of planetary nomenclature that had been previously established, but as a result, Uranus is the only planet named for a Greek deity instead of the Roman equivalent.

Bode's proposed name caught on quickly in some circles, but even so, it would be several decades before the scientific community began to popularly refer to the seventh planet as Uranus. The last holdouts were the British editors of the Nautical Almanac, who referred to the planet as Georgium Sidus until 1850.

Today, most of us don't think twice about the name Uranus, other than to laugh at it. But for those living in the decades following Herschel's discovery, the wide variety of candidate names demonstrated the novelty of the planet itself—there was no roadmap even for simple decisions, like nomenclature. While Bode surely did not intend to burden the planet with scatological associations, at least the name that eventually stuck remains exceedingly memorable to this day.

Heheh. Uranus.