How prescription drugs get their generic and brand names

They sound weird, but drug names are the result of a yearslong naming process

Today's expression: Plenty of
Explore more: Lesson #557
March 23, 2023:

Xoloft, Ibrance, Zocor, Mounjaro: How do drug companies come up with these names? When a pharmaceutical company develops a new treatment, the company creates both the generic (scientific) name and the brand name. They sound weird, but there's a method behind the madness of naming prescription drugs. Plus, learn the English expression "plenty of."

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Have you ever wondered how prescription drugs get their names? It’s more complicated than you might think

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. By listening here, you’ll expand your horizons in English and maybe even learn something useful at the same time. Hey, I said maybe!

On today’s lesson—well this won’t be useful. But it might be interesting! Xoloft, Ibrance, Glucotrol, Skelaxin, Zocor, or, my favorite, Mounjaro. How do pharmaceutical companies come up with these names? I was curious, and I’ll share what I found out with you today.

In the second half of the lesson, I’ll give you plenty of examples of the English expression “plenty of.” And JR has a song of the week. Let’s get stated.

How drugs get their names

Let’s start with this: what is a pharmaceutical drug? It’s a medicine to prevent, treat, or diagnose a disease or medical condition. Typically we think of pharmaceuticals as prescription pills, but drugs can also be injected or taken in other forms. But regardless of the form, they are recipes of chemical compounds.

The process of developing a drug is laborious; it can take ten years and over $1 billion of investment to bring the average drug to market. And long before you or I ever take a pill, scientists in laboratories have tested combination after combination of chemicals to see what might work.

This is a very organized process. And every time a combination is tried, it gets an internal name—usually just a combination of letters and numbers. The vast majority of these chemical compounds—that’s what the combinations are called—the vast majority of these compounds will never have another name, because they never get farther than a lab experiment.

But as soon as a compound starts to show some promise , the company starts to develop two names: the generic name and the brand name.

The generic name is a name of the compound, it’s the name of the recipe. This is the name that scientists will use in research papers and at conferences. The generic name is not owned by any company. It’s a worldwide name to describe the discovery, the ingredients and how they’re put together. The generic name will live forever and the generic name is the same everywhere around the world.

At the same time, the company that discovers a new drug must also develop a brand name. The brand name is the name of the company’s product. It’s the name you see on commercials. It’s the name on the label of the bottle at the pharmacy.

Let’s take a simple example. Tylenol is a brand name. It’s the name of the pill that you swallow. The company that makes Tylenol is Johnson & Johnson. No other company can make a pill called Tylenol; that is the brand name.

The generic name for the chemical compound in the pill is “acetaminophen.” That’s the name of the recipe. And plenty of other companies can make acetaminophen and use their own brand names if they want. I grew up taking Tylenol for pain in the United States. I can go downstairs to the pharmacy across the street from my apartment in Mexico and look for “acetaminophen” and I’ll know I’m taking basically the same thing.

All right, so way back when a drug is first being developed, the pharmaceutical company that makes the discovery gets to create both names—the generic name (or the scientific name) and the brand name.

The generic name is formulaic. The suffix—the second part of the word—explains how the drug works. So similar drugs—drugs that work in the same way—will all end similarly. For example, here are some generic names for drugs that lower cholesterol: Fluvastatin, Lovastatin, Pravastatin—notice a pattern?—Rosuvastatin, Simvastatin.

They all end in the word “statin,” which describes how they work. The company gets to pick the first part of the drug’s generic name. They almost always use two syllables. Pra-va-statin, lo-va-statin, so two syllables. This name can’t mean anything. It has to be a made-up word. And it can’t be considered marketing or promotional in any way.

A company will develop a few generic names for the drug and submit it to a national naming agency. In the U.S., it’s the United States Adopted Names Council. The national agency will approve one name and then submit it to the World Health Organization for global approval. And if it gets WHO approval, then the generic drug is officially named for worldwide use.

How about the brand name? Here companies have much more flexibility—this is the name of their product; nobody else will ever use it. So they can get creative, and since it’s a brand name it can be promotional.

Drug companies try to make names that evoke emotions that they want associated with the drug. If you suffer from allergies, you might take Claritin. That drug will help clear your system so you can breathe clearly. The commercials show a foggy view of the world, followed by a clear view of the world—that’s Claritin. It sounds like clarity. That’s what they want you to be thinking when you choose an allergy medication: clarity, Claritin.

Drug companies work with creative agencies and copywriters to create the name. They write a creative brief: what are the emotions they want people to feel when thinking about the drug? Then the creative team will look for all the words that evoke that emotion. They’ll read literature, watch movies, do interviews, scour the dictionary, search the thesaurus—anything to get inspiration.

Then, they come up with a list of a few hundred names. And then the process of narrowing down the list starts. First, a name has to be easy to say. Is it easy to say in English? Is it easy to say in the other places where it will be sold? Second, are there problems with translation? You don’t want a drug name to cause confusion or embarrassment if it translates into some other word in a different language.

Is it possible that the name is too close to the name of another drug? If so, take it off. If a doctor writes the name with messy handwriting, could that be confused with another drug? If so, take it off or change the spelling.

Sometimes, drugs include a strange letter, like it might end in a Q or have a strange combination of letters—like Xeljanz. That’s spelled X-e-l-j-a-n-z; that’s not the most logical way to spell it, but that’s the point: when written, it won’t be confused with anything else.

When a company has a preferred name, it submits it to a regulator for approval. The U.S. and Europe have agencies that must approve prescription drug names on safety grounds. Overall, the process takes years. But it’s worth it : a typical branded drug makes over $18 billion in sales over its lifetime, so it needs to have a good name.

Some examples

So here are a few examples of brand names. If you want to lower your blood pressure—lower your blood pressure—you take “Lopressor.” Embrace is a word for “hug.” You hug with…the middle part of your upper body. Ibrance sounds like embrace, and that’s a treatment for breast cancer.

But the reason I did this lesson—the reason I was curious about this—was the name of medication for obesity, which is called “Mounjaro.” The reason this made me laugh is that—to me—it sounds like Mount Kilimanjaro. “Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro” is sometimes used as a metaphor for doing something very difficult.

For people who suffer from obesity, controlling their weight is very difficult. And for many people finally getting their weight under control can seem like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro—achieving a difficult goal. I don’t know if this is why they chose Mounjaro as the name of this treatment or if there’s some other reason, but for me it just jumped off the page—Mounjaro is short for Mount Kilimanjaro, which is a metaphor for success.

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Expression: Plenty of