How Prescription Drugs Get Their Crazy Names

Nexium. Plavix. Viagra. Lipitor. Sure you’ve heard of them – you’ve seen the commercials and read the ads online and in magazines plenty of times. And while it’s hard to remember what each drug treats, it’s even harder to understand the origin of each name. Even professionals in the pharmaceutical industry, including those with pharmaceutical sales jobs, don’t know how the drugs they sell got their names.

Did you ever wonder how certain prescription got their names? Believe it or not, there is a method to the madness. Determining how each drug got its name isn’t so difficult, especially if you know the chemistry behind it and the managing company that supports its production. Regardless of that fact, professionals in the pharmaceutical sales industry definitely have their work cut out for them when it comes to understanding how each drug got its one-of-a-kind name.

While drug companies might be tight-lipped about their naming processes, we know about the creation of the names given to each drug. Read on to learn about the interesting process of naming them.

What’s in a Name?

To begin, the name of a drug is a small matter compared to its formulation and efficacy. However, the name behind the drug is still important. That being said, a drug will actually have multiple names in its lifetime (The Economist).

Technically, all drugs have three names and they’re broken down into the following parts: 1) chemical name; 2) generic name; 3) brand name.

The chemical name is the actual chemical compound makeup (confusing, hard-to-pronounce individual ingredients, basically). A pharmaceutical company gives a new drug a chemical name based on a set of rules established by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

The generic name is the breakdown of the chemical compound into simple terms. An example might be Atorvastatin Calcium (commonly known as LIPITOR). Generic names also have a set of prefixes and suffixes to use, such as -vir (anti-viral), -cillin (penicillin-derived antibiotics), or -barb (barbiturates). For any drug that will be marketed in the United States, the generic name must be obtained from the United States Adopted Name Council. It assigns the active ingredient of the drug a generic name, which must then be cleared and reviewed by the International Nonproprietary Name program run by the World Health Organization. “This step assures that there is one non-proprietary (generic) name throughout the world for the drug,” explained Stephanie C. Shubat, director of the Adopted Name Council in a November 2016 interview with CNN. With the generic name settled, a pharmaceutical company proposes a brand name to the FDA, to mark the product as its own.

The brand name is the final trademarked name (Lipitor, Crestor, Cialis, etc.). Brand names usually derive from latin and have some connection of what the drug does. For instance, Pax means “peace,” hence the antidepressant while Luna means “moon,” hence the sleep aid Lunesta (University of Utah Health).

In a now-famous drug-naming story, Arlene Teck, Creative Director at the name-engineering firm Ixxéo, ran a focus group with urologists who treated erectile dysfunction. At the conclusion of the session, Teck asked one of the doctors what it felt like for men when the condition went away. The doctor said, “Visualize a strong stream.” By combining the words “vigorous” and “Niagara,” Teck came up with Pfizer’s blockbuster drug, “Viagra.”

Playing the Name Game

Naming drugs is easier said than done and companies are required to carefully consider each name. Typically, pharmaceutical companies give their drugs names that are easy to remember, easy to spell, and memorable for one reason or another. Additionally, companies are mindful of drugs that have international appeal and careful of proposing names that might insult or patronize a country or specific culture. They should also not be easily confused with existing drugs.

When trying to come up with the final brand name, and as CNN reported, naming drugs is also about avoiding regulatory pitfalls and has become “less and less” about creation, according to Denis Ezingeard, a drug-naming specialist and CEO of Ixxéo. Recovery from rejection, which could take a long time when coordinating the process across different countries, is costly and difficult. Because of the many rules and regulations, pharmaceutical naming has become highly-specialized work that is mostly farmed out to creative agencies.

That being said, most agencies begin the process by playing the numbers game. This means submitting several names for approval for each drug. They assume that at least one (or more than one) name will be rejected for one reason or another. Ezingeard follows a simple guideline when crafting names for approval. What’s he looking for? Visual distinctiveness, melodic contrast, verbal velocity (how it sounds when spoken within a sentence), and language neutrality (the ability to work across many different languages), among others.

All in all, how prescription drugs get their sometimes crazy names is a fascinating process. While those who are already involved in the pharmaceutical industry might already be somewhat familiar with everything that goes into naming a drug, landing a pharmaceutical sales job will allow anyone to understand the process a little better and appreciate it more.