What's with the Weird Drug Names?

There are many words in the English lexicon that originated as brand names. Kleenex and Jacuzzi might come to mind, or Zamboni if you're Canadian. A similar thing happens in pharmaceuticals, where the brand name becomes the word used in public - like Botox - while in the medical field it's known by their scientific name, botulinum toxin. This month, we answer the burning question, why so weird?

What's in a Name?

Scientists seem to have a fondness for counter-intuitive and often outright bad, nomenclature. Sometimes the conventions are loose, allowing Smeagol and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings to become a new species. Sometimes, they are governed by seemingly unnecessarily strict and bureaucratic guidelines, like the naming of planetary objects. Every field has their own rules for naming conventions to serve its own needs, whether it's extra funding (you can name a new species for less than $10,000) or a slew of bureaucracy. Drug names are, however, outright weird. There are articles helping future pharmacists to help memorize these weird drug names - at least the most commonly prescribed ones. So how do drug names work?

Drugs have a chemical name, a generic name, and a brand name, and they all follow certain conventions.

Brand name: Tylenol
Generic name: Paracetamol Acetaminophen
Chemical name: N-acetyl-p-aminophel

Now we might not think so much about Tylenol per se, since it's become a household name, similar to Kleenex - even though both are kind of weird if you think about it. What about a less familiar one, like Inderal (Propanolol) or Lumicef (Brodalumab)? Do drug companies just throw their billion dollar baby into some random syllable generator?

It's about Who They Want to Market to

Often it's about who the consumer is. In many cases, drug companies see doctors as their “market” not the patient being prescribed a medication. More and more, we are seeing advertisements on television for U.S. audiences for generic and common drugs - in the hopes that patients will directly influence the doctors to prescribe. Viagra? Given that old people like sex, the market is wide. What about a drug to treat a rare disease? You won't see these types of advertisements on TV for obvious reasons - the market is far too small. In this case, you need to reach the physician in a way that would click with the scientifically minded - but you don't particularly care about whether it's got a catchy sound, like “ipad” to the general public.


Nothing unique here. You can't trademark names that are already taken, sound too similar to existing names, and so on. On top of the usual rules of trademark, drug names will receive additional scrutiny since misleading names or sounds that may be easily confused can not only cost money, but potential lives. Government agencies like the FDA can step in if the name is too close to an existing name, given that public safety may become an issue.

In addition to this, there are thousands of drugs that are constantly entering the market. Not only must drug names be unique from existing drugs in the marketplace, but they must also be differentiated from the graveyard of drugs that were in the marketplace in the past.

It's Also about Convention

Every field has conventions to help keep the names somewhat consistent and controlled. Drug names are quite tightly controlled in terms of the stems - the prefixes and affix that are used by convention. There is a long list of conventions that generic drugs must follow here. These conventions are useful, because they allow doctors, pharmacists, and other health care providers to immediately identify what the drug is, does, and even how they work by the name. With a new and important class of drugs called biologics, conventions can really help identify what they do.

Mab: Monoclonal Antibodies
Ximab: Chimeric Antibody
Zumab: Humanized Antibody

Other Considerations

This isn't unique to drugs, but names that are culturally problematic will be unacceptable, as are names that could be confusing. Regulations will naturally be more strict given that confusion could have serious consequences.

Marketing is an Afterthought after Following Rules

Given that names can (and often are) simply be rejected by bodies like the FDA, the marketing element often has to take a backseat. The other issue is that there are simply so many drugs out in the market, as well as drugs that were in the market in the past, which are already used. Quite simply, a lot of good names (that fit the many requirements) are already taken.

Drug names do sound funky, and are sometimes just terrible but it's not because drug companies don't believe in marketing or that lack a Steve Jobs type charisma.