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Ask Dr. Universe: How did you get your name?

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 2, 2022

Dr. Universe’s full name is Wendy Sue Universe, giving her the initials W.S.U.  (Washington State University)
Dr. Universe’s full name is Wendy Sue Universe, giving her the initials W.S.U. (Washington State University)
Washington State University

By Washington State University

Dear Dr. Universe: How did you get your name? – Byron, 13, Pennsylvania

Dear Byron,

It turns out a lot of kids around the world have been wondering about the answer to this very question – after all, you don’t hear the name “Dr. Universe” every day.

Believe it or not, I wasn’t entirely sure about the origin of my name. But my friends at the Washington State University Libraries had the answer in their historical archives. Yes, the local library is a great place to visit when you have a big question.

As I read through the archives, I learned that I wouldn’t have my name if it weren’t for two people who worked at the university.

One of these people was Tim Steury, who at the time was writer and editor of WSU’s research magazine Universe. The other person was Bob Smith, who served as dean of the WSU Graduate School.

While most people call me Dr. Universe, my first name is Wendy, and my middle name is Sue. With the last name Universe, that makes my initials W.S.U. You couldn’t ask for a better set of initials, really.

You know, our names are an important part of our identity. Identity means the qualities, beliefs, personality and expressions that make up a person or a group of people. Maybe you even have a nickname that’s part of your identity. Sometimes my friends call me Dr. U for short.

While I was thinking about your question, it also reminded me how scientists often name things, too. For instance, when they discover a new planet, species or element – or come up with a new theory – they have to think of something to call it.

In biology, one of the terms for the system of names we use to describe something is called nomenclature. “Nomen” in Latin means “name.” The binominal, or two-term, naming system is what biologists around the world use to describe different animals, insects, bacteria and other living things.

The naming system requires both a species name and the genus name. For example, I am a feline, or Felis catus. Some animals have a species name and genus that are the same. For instance, Pica pica is the magpie, a kind of bird. Mola mola is the ocean sunfish. Bison bison is, well, a bison. There’s even a name for these types of names: tautonyms.

You are a Homo sapien, or human. Individual humans have a variety of different names. They come in all kinds of different languages. All right, here’s a question for you: How did you get your name? Perhaps you can do an investigation of your own.

Ask your family about the origin of your first and last name. Find out if it comes with an interesting story, holds a special meaning, was passed down from someone else or maybe even has a connection to the past.

Ask your family and friends about the stories behind their names, too. When you ask a good question, you never know what you might discover.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Note: Bob Smith will publish a book about his career working in universities this year. Thanks for giving me a name and for sharing our story.

Know a kid with a science question? Adults can help kids submit a question at askdruniverse.wsu.edu/ask for a chance to be featured in a future video, podcast or Q&A post.

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