Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

Ustekinumab? Ixabepilone? RimabotulinumtoxinB?

Weird words, indeed, but (even more weirdly) you can probably guess that these are medications. We’ve become accustomed to the unpronounceable alphabetic mishmashes that name our pills. Who concocts these words, and how do they do it?

The process is too labyrinthine for me to explain, or even to understand after looking it up. Suffice it to say, the United States Adopted Names Program attaches a generic name to new drugs. According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, “Pharmaceutical names are assigned according to a scheme in which specific syllables in the drug name (called stems) convey information about the chemical structure, action, or indication of the drug. The name also includes a prefix that is distinct from other drug names and that is euphonious, memorable, and acceptable to the sponsoring pharmaceutical firm.”

I especially love the “euphonious.” (Whose Greek roots, by the way, mean “sweet-sounding.”)

In short, drugs end up with three names: a generic (non-proprietary) name (acetaminophen), a brand name (Tylenol) , and a chemical name. According to Wikipedia, “The brand name Tylenol and the United States Adopted Name acetaminophen were generated by McNeil (Laboratories) from the chemical name of the drug, N-acetylpara-aminophenol (APAP).”

Sinemet, for another example, a brand-name Parkinson’s drug, combines two roots: sine, meaning “without” in Latin, and emetic, from Greek (and then Latin), meaning “to vomit.” Sinemet doesn’t make you vomit! The drug combines levodopa, a dopamine replacement, which causes nausea, with carbidopa, which inhibits nausea by preventing the creation of dopamine outside of the brain. Sinemet’s generic name is carbidopa-levodopa. Its scientific name may or may not be something like (2S)-2-amino-3-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)propanoic acid;3-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)-2-hydrazinyl-2-methylpropanoic acid.

A cholesterol drug, Lipitor, goes by the generic name atorvastatin. The prefix lipi- derives from lipids, referring to cholesterol compounds, and the suffix –tor- comes from the second syllable in atorvastatin, which apparently comes from a Spanish word meaning “to clog.” Statin comes from the Latin verb stare, meaning “to stand” or “to stop,” as in status, solstice (when the sun “stops”), and stasis. The drug stops the clogging.

Because it’s hard not to get lost in the weeds and because I have probably already butchered much of the science, I’ll stop. Feel free to correct me, and to share some of your own favorite medicinal nomenclature.

In closing, I recommend you check out this website, wherein a pharmacist shares some delightful customer mispronunciations of drug names. X and X, anyone?


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4 Responses to Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis*

  1. Kathy says:

    Brenda–So interesting! Glad you could ! I had no idea those syllables–little morphemes–meant something, but I never gave it any thought before!

  2. Brenda Bagby says:

    This one is right up my alley Kathy! I used to teach a bit about drug nomenclature to my oncology research students to help them understand and gain confidence when reading all of the name of drugs that all of our patients took. It’s so much less intimidating to know, for example, that any generic drug name ending in “mab” is a monoclonal antibody and if they had already been introduced to the concept of monoclonal antibodies then they knew a little about the drug they were seeing and could make better assessments as to whether or not it was an allowed drug or better still a required drug, etc. for purposes of our research. So… complex… often yes but there are patterns that help simplify as well. And in teaching this I learned a new term… infix. Obviously I was a science major and not English so perhaps everyone knew this term but me. So for example a drug targeting the circulatory system may contain “ci” in the middle of the generic name. Always fun when English (or Latin?) and science meet.

  3. Kathy says:

    Sarah–I think you’re right about the brain glue. Or there just isn’t as much in there to remember, so these things take hold. “Antidisestablis…etc.” is one for me too. I also remember my dad’s saying, when offered another helping of food, “No, thank you. I’ve had an ample sufficiency. Any more would be an encumbrance.” He got that from an older brother (when he was a kid, no doubt).

  4. Sarah Becker says:

    What burns me is the naming of a surgical lubricant “SurgiLube.” Couldn’t they have been a tiny bit more original? Then again, though inane, it is memorable.
    Funny how these long words learned in childhood stick with you, like antidisestablishmentarianism. The brain must have some special glue in it up to the age of puberty, when sex (or gender studies) pushes out all other brain functions!

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