Robert Roy Britt discusses the “nomenclature wars” of astronomy at

You might be surprised to learn that the outskirts of the solar system are loaded with Plutinos, Centaurs, cubewanos and EKOs. Astronomers didn’t even know this a decade ago. In fact until 1992 they hadn’t even invented three of the terms.

Now it seems they don’t have enough of these crazy names.

During the past decade, hundreds of objects have been discovered in a bewildering range of locations and orbital configurations beyond Jupiter. During that same time, astronomers have invented a puzzling set of designations — some straightforward, some creative, some downright amusing — to describe their findings.

The result is a charming lexicon that unfortunately does not properly describe what’s out there, according to some experts. More names are needed, one group of astronomers argues.

It’s a longish article, and there wouldn’t be much point trying to summarize it, so I’ll let you examine the proposed words and classifications for yourself, but I can’t resist quoting my favorite:

Objects near Plutinos that are not attracted into resonances with Neptune are called cubewanos. These make up the “classical” Kuiper Belt, a relatively thin region of space that corresponds to the same plane in which most of the planets orbit, Parker explained.

The origin of the word “cubewano” is perhaps the most extreme example of nomenclative amusement among astronomers.

The first KBO found was initially designated 1992 QB1, Parker explains. Its a name that denotes the year, month and order of discovery and is typical for newfound objects whose orbits are not pinned down. It was later learned that 1992 QB1 was a “main belt” KBO, not a Plutino, and so astronomers just began sounding out “QB1” and a new term was born.

My only complaint is that “cubewano” is a misleading spelling; the etymology implies it should be pronounced “cue-bee-wahn-oh” (Q-B-1-O), but it’s hard to look at “cube” and not pronounce it as a monosyllable (“kyoob-wahn-oh”). A tip of the Languagehat hat to aldiboronti at for the link.


  1. I admit this is the first time I’ve seen the word “cubewano”, but my first guess as to the pronounciation was “cue-bee-wahn-oh”. If you hadn’t pointed it out, I would probably never have noticed there was a “cube” in there, all I see are two open syllables. And this is not the first time I base my pronounciation of new (to me) English words on considerations like this, though this is one of the rare cases I’m right. Could it have something to do with my first language? How ’bout the rest of you folks?

  2. I would have thought ‘cue-bee…’, too, mainly because it looks vaguely Spanishy, except for the ‘w’.

  3. I read it as cube+wan+oh while noting to myself that that might not be its actual pronunciation.

  4. /kubɛwano/ here, which was also wrong. Not totally sure why; it looks a little like a New World placename of local origin, from a language with vowels written roughly as in Spanish?

  5. nowan you know says

    cubewunno, surely? Or were the astronomers Irish?

  6. For me, the “cube” looked like “coo – be”, or maybe “cyoo-be”. The fact that “be” is a separate syllable meant it couldn’t be “coob-wano”; I don’t think that silent-e thing works inside words (except before suffixes, of course, but “wano” doesn’t look like a suffix to me.

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