Why Do Medicines Have Such Ridiculous Names?

Why Do Medicines Have Such Ridiculous Names?

Gone are the good old days when medicines had simple, easy to pronounce names such as aspirin, paracetamol and morphine. Nowadays pharmaceutical companies almost seem to revel in giving drugs names that are near impossible to pronounce, such as phenoxymethylpenicillin (pronounced phen-oxi-methal-pen-a-sil-an) or hydrochlorothiazide (hydro-clor-o-thia-zide) or sulfamethoxazole (sol-fa-me-thox-a-zol). To make things even more confusing, some medicines have multiple names depending on whether they have been approved for sale to the public and if companies have created their own brand name.

Pills picture from Shutterstock

But despite the seemingly random selection of drug names, there’s a defined structure to how they are decided. And recently, the European Medicines Agency (the largest government agency for the approval of drugs in the world and similar to Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration) released draft guidelines on the selection and approval of names for new medicines.

Inventors, chemical and code names

There was a time when there were no rules for how a drug was named. Usually, it was up to the inventor to decide and, more often than not, that person named the compound after (usually) himself. Condy’s crystals, for instance, is the purple bath salt used as a disinfectant named after a chemist called Henry Condy.

Arthur Whitfield was a dermatologist who developed Whitfield’s Ointment to treat fungal infections. And then there’s Lassar’s Paste, which is used to treat nappy rash and is named for Oskar Lassar, a German scientist.

Things are different now.

Chances are that any new drug will have come from a pharmaceutical company. These companies invent hundreds or thousands of new molecules each year that they hope to turn into saleable medicines.

With this sort of volume being produced, pharmaceutical companies don’t have the time, or the need really, to name all of them. At this stage, drug molecules have two names – their chemical name and a code name.

The chemical name follows very strict chemistry rules and any chemist can determine the structure of a molecule from it. The chemical name of aspirin is 2-acetoxybenzoic acid and paracetamol is N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)ethanamide (in case you were curious).

In contrast, code names are simply an amalgamation and abbreviation of the drug company’s name and a sequential number. A drug code named GSK10093, for instance, would be the 10,093th molecule made by the company GlaxoSmithKline.

These code names are usually dropped when the molecule enters human trials. But, occasionally, a code name comes into common use, such as the morning after pill RU486.

This drug was initially developed by the company Roussel Uclaf and was called RU-38486. But this was deemed too long to say, so it was shortened to RU486.

Brand names and generics

When a drug has approval from the government, it will usually have a generic name and one or more brand names.

Generic names can be used by any pharmaceutical or marketing company. Brand names are trademarked by companies and are used for drugs they hold patents for.

The famous erectile dysfunction drug Viagra is actually a brand name owned by Pfizer. The same drug is also sold by the same company to treat hypertension (high blood pressure) under the brand name Revatio.

The generic name of the drug, which can be used by any pharmaceutical company now that Pzifer’s patent has expired, is sildenafil (pronounced sil-den-a-fil).

Generic names of most drugs are invented and assigned based on the disease they treat. If two drugs have similar sounding names, they most likely treat the same disease.

Take, for instance, platinum drugs, which are used to treat cancer. They have names ending with –platin: cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin.

Many antibiotics have names ending with –cillin (amoxicillin, piperacillin and penicillin) or –mycin (paromomycin, spectinmycin and herimycin).

Cholesterol-lowering drugs typically end with –statin (atorvastatin, fluvastatin and lovastatin) and drugs derived from monoclonal antibodies have names that end with –mab (abciximab, belimumab and ofatumumab).

A message for you

The European Medicines Agencies’ new draft guidelines for naming drugs gives brief directions on how names should be developed.

Each drug name should not:

  1. mislead about what diseases the drug is capable of treating,
  2. mislead about what the drug and medicine is made of,
  3. be used for any promotional message,
  4. be offensive in any language or have bad connotations,
  5. be too similar to the names of other drugs (so they don’t get mixed up by health workers or patients), and finally
  6. should give consideration to phonetics and the potential difficulties of pronunciation.

So why do companies give drugs such difficult-to-pronounce names when simpler ones would be easier for everyone? Interestingly, it’s usually only the generic drug names that are difficult to pronounce; brand names tend to be simple.

Take, for instance, the highest-selling drug in the world, the cholesterol-lowering agent Lipitor. This is the drug’s brand name; its generic name is atorvastatin (a-tor-va-sta-tin), which is much harder to say.

While there are many factors that contribute to why a drug is given a particular name, the most important is that ultimately companies want patients to buy expensive, patented drugs rather than cheaper generics. It’s the branded drugs that make their money.

A simple brand name is easier for people to remember and pronounce, and more likely to be asked for at the pharmacy. If you can’t pronounce the generic name of your medicine, you’re unlikely to ask the pharmacist for it.

So remember, don’t just buy the brand name medicine just because it’s easy to say. Buying a generic, when it’s available, is cheaper and just as effective. Clearly, there’s a lot of profit in the right name.

Nial Wheate is senior lecturer in pharmaceutical science at University of Sydney. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • Whenever I fill a script the pharmacist asks if I would like the generic versions of the drugs prescribed. Saves me heaps and I would never think to do that.

    Do other people experience this also or do I just have an awesome local pharmacist?

    • Yeah mine does that too, but I think it’s because the generic version is their own house brand so they make more money from them 😛

  • That’s always occurred for me. I know on the prescription form there’s a tick box (for the Dr to fill out) which says if generic substitution is allowed (default is Blank=Yes) but I’m not sure if the pharmacy is required to ask if you want the generic, as long as your prescription allows for it.

  • A generic drug becomes available once the patent has expired from the inventor/ sponsor company. For example, viagra, is off -patent and can now be produced by any other pharmaceutical company. The reason you *should* pay for a brand premium is that the extra you spend goes back into research into new drugs. If you buy the generic, and there is nothing wrong with that, then the money just goes into the back pockets of the generic company. Generics companies usually don’t re-invest into new and improved therapeutics.
    The pharmacist doesn’t care what you spend, they get their cut either way.
    Here’s a helpful guide from a generics company: http://www.alphapharm.com.au/faqs.aspx#

    • The money rarely goes back into research, if it does, it’s a tiny amount compared to what is made from blockbuster drugs. Funnily enough, if drug companies invested more of the billions they had made over the last 20 years with patented drugs in R&D, they may not be having the issues they do now – poor new drug pipeline/multiple clinical failures for new drugs. The use of generic companies increases competition, which lowers the price to the Tax Payer, who foots the PBS bill. The most efficient way to keep this lower is to use generics. Why pay $80 for a branded drug per patient when you can get it for half to a quarter of the price? The money saved could be used elsewhere in the health budget for preventative and treatment measures.

      • Couldn’t agree more. However, some investment is better than none, right? And “some” for “Roche” for example is about 6 million AUD in Switzerland alone per day invested into research. Not all evil…

        • Can’t be spending enough, don’t think Roche has had any success outside of cancer drugs, poor Roche. /tic somewhat

          • Investment doesn’t guarantee success.
            Some companies specialist in treating certain conditions because they hire scientists that know how those functions work, and are the most likely to find drugs that work with those functions. Pharmaceutical scientists aren’t generalists, they work in very specific areas. Sometimes drugs have side effects that cure other ailments and can be marketed for those purposes as well after further trials (viagra for example).
            The issue is not as simple as more money, you also need more people, and there may simply not be more people, especially if those people are poached to start up generics companies. Sometimes universities even build whole new buildings with brand new equipment from specific grants and then don’t have the budget or the people to staff them.

    • Ask your chemist about their profit margin on the generic versus the original brand name drug. While there is a saving to the government/taxpayer when you buy generic, there are also significant drug company kickbacks to the chemist for selling their generic versus others’. Chemists have been known to lie about some drug like Lipitor being no longer available so they can sell generics. It’s not all altruism from the chemists. Many people, particularly the elderly get very confused about their medication and can double up on drugs because the brand names are different. Academics like generic prescribing, but the real world is very different.

  • “Nowadays pharmaceutical companies almost seem to revel in giving drugs names that are near impossible to pronounce, such as phenoxymethylpenicillin or hydrochlorothiazide or sulfamethoxazole.” These three medicinals have all been around since the 60-70’s, far from being prime examples of a modern-day trend in drug naming, only at the time they were known by their brand names (Penicillin V, Bactrim, Septrin). Actually these particular generic names make more chemical sense than some of the examples one finds today.

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