Gene Roddenberry had intended his new female communications officer to be called "Lieutenant Sulu". Herb Solow pointed out how similar this was to "Zulu" and thought it might act against the plan for racial diversity in the show, so the name Sulu remained with George Takei's character. "Uhura" comes from the Swahili word uhuru, meaning "freedom". Nichols states in her book 'Beyond Uhura' that the name was inspired by her having had with her a copy of Robert Ruark's book Uhuru on the day she read for the part. When producer Robert Justman explained to Roddenberry what the word uhuru meant, he changed it to Uhura and adopted that as the character's name. Coincidentally, the end credits of the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country incorrectly refer to Uhura as "Uhuru".

Uhura's first name was not used in Star Trek canon until Abrams's 2009 film, in a scene where the young Spock calls her "Nyota" in a moment of intimacy. Although other non-canon names had previously existed, "Nyota" had been the most common.