Older man with pills, scary side effect, too many prescriptions

Pronouncing names properly can be tricky. Prescription drug advertisements on TV tell you how to pronounce the brand names that presumably were designed to be snappy and memorable.

Every drug with a brand name (whether it is actually snappy or not) also has both a chemical name that tells exactly what its chemical make-up is as well as a generic name that tells pharmacists, doctors and other health professionals anywhere in the world which drug it is. Brand names vary, but the generic name stays the same. One reader noticed these generic drug names and asked us an unanswerable question.

Why Can’t Generic Drug Names Be Easier to Pronounce?

Q. I noticed that ads for prescription medication include a generic name of the medication that somebody is trying to peddle. Those generic ‘words’ look like someone poured a bunch of letters out on the table. They are more like scrambled letters and do not make sense as regular words. What’s the deal?

A. The FDA requires an official or generic name for every drug. Sadly, these are often difficult to spell and pronounce.

New cancer drugs like ibritumomab, tiuxetan and pembrolizumab are tongue twisters, but so are old epilepsy meds such as levetiracetam. We agree with you that such hard-to-pronounce names are problematic for both patients and health professionals.

Deciphering Generic Drug Names:

Despite the crazy quilt of hard-to-prononce lettters in many generic drugs, there is actually some sense behind the alphabet soup. At least that is the stance of the United States Adopted Names (USAN) Council. This group of professionals from the AMA (American Medical Association), the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) and the APhA (the American Pharmacists Association) has been creating generic drug names in collaboration with drug companies since the early 1960s.

Here are some examples:

If you see the stem alol or olol, there is a good chance the drug is a beta blocker heart medicine such as atenolol, labetalol, metoprolol or propranolol. When pril shows up in a name it is likely a blood pressure medicine called an ACE inhibitor such as enalapril, lisinopril or ramipril. Here is a link to the National Library of Medicine Drug Information Portal with a list of Generic Name Stems.

Where things get crazy is with some of the new cancer drugs. Researchers have created monoclonal antibodies that they abbreviate mAbs. This stem has been incorporated into names like gemtuzumab, rituximab and ibritumomab. Such names may make total sense to scientists, but such tongue twisters do very little to enhance communication with patients.

What do you think about the new generic drug names that are impossible to pronounce? Share your thoughts below in the comment section.

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  1. Katie

    As an RN, I can assure you that going from brand named drugs to generics in hospitals has caused many drug errors!! Their names re just ridiculous! Who can remember a seven syllable word for each of them, with many being similar in spelling. Nobody wants to talk about this.

  2. Dr Patrick Neustatter

    My cousin Ron, who is a chemist and works on drug research some times, claims that manufacturers deliberately pick some gobbledygook unpronounceable name for the generic to discourage prescribing generics (in contrast to some catchy brand name like Allegra, Lopressor, Celebrex, Antivert to convince you of what it does)

  3. M. Storms M.D
    Marquette, Michigan

    I am of the opinion that I will not prescribe a medication that I cannot spell or say easily. Drug names have gotten to the point of being ridiculous. These pharmaceutical companies need to stop this nonsense of choosing names that no one can pronounce because if they can’t be pronounced, they can’t be remembered.

  4. MJWilkie

    I have long believed that generic drugs have not been successful because there are powers that do not WANT them to succeed. The unpronounceable names are part of the picture.

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