What’s in a drug name? The X to Z guide

zyprexa (wikimedia Vulkano)

What's in a drug name?

Lots of Xs and Zs apparently. Drug brand names beginning with the two rare letters are becoming increasingly common – think Xeljanz, Zytiga, Xgeva. According to Reuters, as of January this year, 7 of the 15 drugs beginning with the letter "X" approved by the FDA since 1995 had been approved in the last two and half years.

And an article in the BMJ in 2010 highlighted this trend. Between 1986 and 2005, the number of brand names beginning with the letter X increased by 130% – and the letter Z by more than 400%. In the same period, the number of drugs in the BNF grew by only 80%.

But while the letters might make the names hard to pronounce, there are actual reasons for the apparent madness.

The first is marketing. As Reuters explains, the X and Zs are believed by marketing experts to make the word more memorable. The letters are also "fricative consonents", produced by forcing air through a constricted vocal tract and placed in the name to imply speed or fluidity. And it's not just X and Z which can connote certain characteristics of the drug. A professor of pharmaceutical marketing told USA Today: "”There are certain letters that express power and control, like Z, M or P. Other letters, like S, are more passive. Depending on what the drug does, you want to give the name certain features."

The second reason is regulation. Drug names have to be distinct enough to avoid confusion and handwriting errors, and both the FDA and EU health regulators have strict guidelines on names for new medicines. “You can’t have a name look like or sound like another drug,” said Scott Piergrossi, vice president, creative at Brand Institute Inc. “Someone could receive the wrong drug.”

Include a rare letter such as an X or a Z and the drug name becomes more memorable, both phonically and visually. It does also, however, end up giving us a list of drug names which look like sure-fire Scrabble winners. Below are 8 of the highest scoring FDA-approved drug brand names (click Next to cycle through), if you ever were to play a game of pharmaceutical Scrabble…:


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What do you think? Do you think some companies have gone too far to make their drug names stand out? Or do you think there are compelling safety reasons for an X and a Z in a name? What drug names am I missing?

The drug names might be hard to pronounce, but sometimes so can the names of the pharmaceutical companies that make them. Click to read “Are you saying it right? How to pronounce these pharma company names“.

Comments 1

  1. David

    It’s really just a long-term plan. When Hasbro changes the rules in Scrabble to allow proper nouns, those aware of the pharmaceutical market will rule the game.

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