The Art of Prescription Drug Naming

If you’ve watched the commercials on television for prescription drugs, it’s likely you’ve heard names like Skyrizi, Zytiga, and Otezla. It may seem like those in charge of naming drugs toss the dice from a Scrabble game and name the drugs according to how the dice fall, but naming a drug is actually a complicated process. A branded prescription drug is actually known by three names. The pharmaceutical company gives a new drug a chemical name, then the country in which the drug will be marketed assigns the active ingredient of the drug a generic name, and then a pharmaceutical company proposes a brand name to the FDA to mark the product as its own. The FDA rejects names that seem too fanciful or overstate a drug’s effectiveness, and puts the kibosh on names that might stigmatize a patient. FDA examiners also listen as a variety of people — each with different accents — pronounce the name before approval. Like poets who write Elizabethan sonnets rather than free verse, pharmaceutical namers must make difficult decisions based on arcane rules, but their work is still a form of artistry.