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June 20, 2006

Brand Naming: Sounds Like a Drug to Me

Vitruvian ManPharmaceutical brand names, like tech names, draw heavily on Greek and Latin roots, yet they are rarely mistaken for anything but drugs. The old stand-by tranquilizer, Valium, could just as easily be a microchip from its name, but few of RxList’s top 300 most-searched-on drugs have names ending in –ium.

Pharmaceutical companies and their customers have a greater tolerance of polysyllables than do the manufacturers of most consumer goods, though the brand names of medications are almost always considerably shorter than the generic names.

Generic names for drugs usually tell you something about what’s in them. Back in high school biology, I learned that anything which ended in –one was a steroid, and anything that ended in –ol was a form of alcohol. But there are steroids like Florinef whose brand names don’t end in –one, and non-steroids like Trazodone (brand name Desyrel) whose names do end in –one.

In fact, while it’s easy to recognize drug names because of their multiple syllables and endings in –ol, -one, -in, -ex and the like, drugs with similar-sounding names may not do the same thing.

Take the popular –in ending. Penicillin is an antibiotic with an old-fashioned name (the –cillin is for “bacillus”). Vicodin, on the other hand, is an opiate, whereas Aspirin is a non-opiate anagesic. Neurontin was developed as an anticonvulsant, though it works better for neuropathic pain than for epilepsy.

OxyContin, popular on the black market and cause of some celebrated scandals, is also an opiate, but Claritin is an antihistamine and Wellbutrin is an antidepressant.

Or take the –ra ending. We all know what Viagra does, and get frequent offers for it by e-mail. Similarly-named Septra is an antibiotic (with the truly frightening generic name of sulfamethoxazole trimethoprim) and Allegra is an antihistamine. The names themselves don’t tell us much about which to take for allergies, which for infections, and which for erectile dysfunction.

All of them sound like drugs, but if you want to know what they do, don’t go by their names. Read the prescription label instead.

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Posted by Diane Prange at June 20, 2006 9:14 AM
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Thanks for the info.

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