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The Secret Formula Behind Every Drug Name

Originally published in

Drug names often seem like insane semantic puzzles,

but their hidden meanings can be traced back

to traits found in every drug.

Being in the drug naming business, I’ve had my share of cocktail party chitchats on the quizzical nature of drug brand names. Most people have no problem with the famous names like Enbrel®, Prozac®, and Viagra®. But when it comes to understanding new drug names, such as the ones advertised on American television like Farxiga®, Myrbetriq® and Namzaric®, it’s all Greek to them.

True, some drug names are random mash-ups, known as “blank slate” names, but the vast majority of Pharma names are anything but random. There’s a secret formula to drug naming, as those of us in the business know. Most drug names crafted by naming professionals are rooted in orthographic techniques, aimed at expressing fundamental drug traits like chemical origin, therapeutic outcome, and catchy mnemonic imagery.

Here’s some insider information on the naming strategies of several successful drugs. See if these techniques can be applied to your company’s drug naming efforts. Or, at your next cocktail party, see if you can be the wizard who unravels the hidden mysteries behind all those mind-bending pharmaceutical names. Violá!


ADRIAMYCIN® (Toponym name)

The brand name Adriamycin is a “place” name, also called a toponym. Toponym names make reference to a location, region or geographic feature. Toponym names are a well-established practice in marketing, since they link a distinctive location’s imagery to a brand, like the Chrysler Newport® for example. In this case, doxorubicin (the nonproprietary name for the Adriamycin, an antibiotic) was reportedly discovered in Italy near the Adriatic Sea, hence the basis for its proprietary name, Adriamycin (mycin is a suffix in antibiotic names).


HUMIRA® (Acronym name)

Humira (adalimumab) has had hundred of millions of dollars spent on television advertising it in the US, making it one of the more famous drug names. But did you know that Humira is a semi-acronym for "Human monoclonal antibody In Rheumatoid Arthritis"? Acronyms and semi-acronyms are abundant in Pharma nomenclature because they provide a short mnemonic word for otherwise long, scientific phrases. Isn’t Humira easy to remember?


INTERMEZZO® ("Real Word" name)

Intermezzo (zolpidem tartrate sublingual tablets) is used to treat insomnia, especially for those people who wake in the middle of the night. The rhythmic dictionary word intermezzo is defined as “a short part of a musical work (such as an opera) that connects major sections of the work.” Taken as a metaphor, the brand name Intermezzo evokes the experience of returning to sleep after having sleep disrupted. Real dictionary words are not always acceptable as trademarks––if they are simply descriptive. But Intermezzo works because it’s registered for pharmaceuticals, not musical works. (Just like Microsoft's Windows is for software, not window installation.) And that technique can often lead to unique imagery and powerful naming.


ORENITRAM® (Semordnilap name)

Orenitram (treprostinil) is the proprietary name of a prescription medicine from United Therapeutics used to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension. It is derived from the name of the CEO, MARTINE ROthblatt, spelled backwards. Orenitram is a semordnilap brand name––a name which spells a different name when read backwards. (Semordnilaps are unlike palindrome drug names, which remain the same name when read backwards, like in Xanax®. Interestingly, semordnilap is itself a semordnilap––the reverse of the word “palindromes”.) Orenitram is unique in the drug naming space, not only for it’s reflection of Martine Rothblatt, but also because it's the only drug name using this clever technique.


PERJETA® (Generic name link)

Perjeta (pertuzumab) is a monoclonal antibody treatment for breast cancer. The name Perjeta was created from combining the prefix /PER/ (from pertuzumab) together with /JET/, a metaphor for speed of recovery. The final /A/ creates a feminine tone, aligning the brand name with its female patient population. Like many Pharma brands, pertuzumab is known around the world by a singular brand name, Perjeta.


XANAX® (Palindrome name)

Xanax (alprazolam), a drug used to treat anxiety disorders, has become a household word (like Prozac®). You can even find “funny Xanax memes” online. At least some of the appeal of Xanax is due to the balanced visual look of It. That’s because Xanax is a palindrome name. Palindromes (from Greek palindromes, ‘running back again’) are words, phrases, numbers, or other sequences of characters that read the same backward or forward, like “wow,” “civic” and “kayak.” In Pharma, the palindrome naming technique has many examples: Raxar®, Lexxel®, Lozol®, and Merrem®. Why are palindromes used so often in Pharma naming? They tend to be memorable.

Viewed through this prism, drug names are seen as a colorful linguistic tapestry of unexpected word play, idiosyncratic lettering, and scientific lexicology. So before you mutter “urgh” the next time you hear a new drug name, see if you can break the code to its unique, secret formula.

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