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How Do I Say That? The Art and Science of Naming Drugs

by Tori Marsh on March 30, 2017 at 12:19 pm

Working with prescription drugs every day, I constantly find myself pausing over their obscure names that are oftentimes impossible to pronounce. Xeljanz? Idarucizumab? Tecfidera? How did these crazy names come to be, and who can we blame? I was interested, so I went down the rabbit hole…

Drugs have (at least) three names.

Right when a drug is developed, the naming process begins, starting with the chemical name.

  • Chemical name: This is usually the first name a drug is given and is the most complex! This name usually describes the atomic or molecular structure of the drug. For example, the chemical name for Sudafed is dl-threo-2-(methylamino)-1-phenylpropan-1-ol. Don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either.
  • Generic name: This is also referred to as the non-proprietary name. On GoodRx we often show the generic in parenthesis after the brand name; for example, Motrin (ibuprofen). Generic names are assigned by the World Health Organization and the United States Adopted Names council (USAN), and are usually a shorthand version of the drug’s structure or mechanism of action (how it works). Generic/nonproprietary names were created to eliminate the use of the chemical names in the clinical setting. For instance, ibuprofen’s clinical name is (RS)-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid. I would much rather talk to my doctor about taking ibuprofen, than trying to pronounce that. Wouldn’t you? Yeah, I thought so. So although the generic name can sometimes be confusing, just remember, it could be way worse.
  • Brand name: Also called the proprietary name, this is the name that is intended for you, the patient! The brand name is intended to suggest the drug’s function, and is ultimately approved by the FDA. However, like most things in the pharmaceutical world, coming up with the brand name is a long and arduous process.

The confusing world of branded drug names

A drug’s brand name is developed by the company manufacturing the drug. However, more often than not, drug manufacturers work with companies that specialize in naming drugs. As you might expect, gaining approval for the brand name is the most difficult step to clear in the naming process. Good brand names should work in every country, be easy for doctors to spell and remember, and shouldn’t cause any trademark disputes. 

Branded drug names should be unique

The FDA also requires that brand names be unique and distinct from others in every language. This is to prevent drug-mix ups by doctors and patients, and is usually the more time consuming step in the naming process. Manufactures often come up with as many as 3,000 potential names before they narrow it down to one.

This may seem like a silly guideline, but take Celebrex and Celexa for example. Yes, these two look different, but one bout of messy handwriting or mix up in pronunciation could cause your pharmacist to give you an antidepressant over your arthritis medication. In fact, drug mix-ups like this one are so dangerous that the Institute of Medicine has estimated that around 1.5 million people are injured or killed each year by prescription mix-ups, which can be caused by confusing naming. So, it is in your best interest that the naming process be this complex!

Creating a marketable name

In addition to creating names that adhere to the FDA’s guidelines, manufacturers also aim to create names that are marketable. Take Viagra for instance. It has become such a household name that it is even in the Oxford English Dictionary. Created by Pfizer, the goal was to name their drug for erectile dysfunction (ED) with a word that conjured images of its desirable effect, and they succeeded. Although there are many theories as to where the name Viagra came from, it sounds similar to words like “vigor” and “vitality,” adjectives that may convince those suffering from ED to give it a try.  Although most drug names can’t possibly become as household as Viagra, it is yet another factor that manufacturers must consider in the drug naming process.

What is the moral of the story from all of this? Don’t feel bad if you cant pronounce your medication. You’re not alone.



Institute of Medicine. Medication Errors Injure 1.5 Million People and Cost Billions of Dollars Annually; Report Offers Comprehensive Strategies for reducing Drug-Related Mistakes. July 2006.


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