Name Uranus and Neptune in Hebrew!

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. English is often considered the language of astronomy, but different languages have their own words for the planets. For instance, there are Hebrew names for Mercury through Saturn, but not for the last two, Uranus and Neptune. Now some in Israel want to do something about that, as Daniel Estrin explains.

DANIEL ESTRIN: When the ancient Hebrews gazed at the sky, they saw five planets, and they gave them and Earth Hebrew names. But Uranus and Neptune were discovered much later. So Israelis use the Western names for those planets, and that's a problem, says Dvora Lang. She directs an Israeli science program for gifted youth.

DVORA LANG: It's easier for our students when there are Hebrew names for things, for scientific things. And it's easier for the general public to relate to things that are in Hebrew.

ESTRIN: So her staff came up with the idea to finally give Hebrew names to Uranus and Neptune. They turned to the Hebrew Language Academy, a government-funded institution that coins new Hebrew terms.

LANG: This language means a lot to us. We still feel we have to make it as lively as possible, because it only became a spoken language a little over a hundred years ago.

ESTRIN: Since its inception in 1953, the Hebrew Language Academy has modernized the language, inventing words for things that weren't around during the time of the prophets, like "croutons" and "text messages." But when it came to the planets, for the first time the Hebrew Language Academy let the public decide. Here's the Academy's Reut Barzilai.

REUT BARZILAI: It's not very often that the Academy gets a chance to name two planets. And we wanted to open this up to the Hebrew speaking public. They had to be a part of it.

ESTRIN: This year, nearly 2,000 Israelis sent the Academy suggestions for Uranus and Neptune. Yes, some were names of movie stars and soccer players. Little kids offered their own names, too. But others got creative. The Hebrew word for Mars, "Ma'adim," is a variation of the word for the color red. Many thought along the same lines when naming the blue planet Neptune.

BARZILAI: There were a lot of names that had to do with "kachol," blue. Some were "Kachal," "Chalchal," or "Machachil."

ESTRIN: But why are you smiling when you mention that name?

BARZILAI: Because it's hard to pronounce, Machachil.

ESTRIN: Others took a page from Greco-Roman mythology. Neptune is the Roman god of the sea. So some cracked open their Bibles to look for a Hebrew equivalent. They found "Rahav," a mythological sea creature. Another suggestion was "Tarshish," a precious stone from the breastplate worn by Israelite priests. It was supposedly the color of the sea.

BARZILAI: Tarshish is not a word that you would use in everyday life. So it's kind of available to be used for a name for a planet. It doesn't have any other use in modern Hebrew.

ESTRIN: Why didn't Pluto get a name?

BARZILAI: A few years ago, it was decided by an international committee of astronomers that Pluto is not a planet. It's only a very big asteroid.
ESTRIN: That's really sad!

BARZILAI: I'm sorry�

ESTRIN: Only planets deserve names? Why can't�

BARZILAI: You don't really name asteroids.

ESTRIN: A jury of linguists, astronomers and a science fiction writer narrowed down the list to two finalists per planet. For Neptune, Rahav and Tarshish made it to the finals. For Uranus, the candidates are Oron, which means "small light" and describes how the planet is seen from earth, and Shachak, a Biblical name for the sky, reminiscent of Uranus, the Greek god of the sky.
Israelis can vote online for their favorites until the end of the month, and the winners will be announced at the end of the year. Speaking of which: maybe it's time for English speakers to find a new name for Uranus.

LANG: It's not a wonderful English name.

ESTRIN: I think we should have a voting for a new English�

LANG: You should vote for a new name for that planet, yes. It is absolutely necessary, I agree. There is no relation between "Oo-rah-nos," as it was called, and Uranus. It's just a matter of pronunciation. But, not good.

ESTRIN: For The World, I'm Daniel Estrin, Jerusalem.

WERMAN: And that online poll is only open to Israeli citizens, but the Hebrew Language Academy is counting votes from around the world. You can find out more at The World dot org.

Do you enjoy our audio? Please help support it with a donation.