How Meds Are Named

You’ve seen them out there, the meds with the silly names: Abilify, Geodon (Zeldox in Canada), Elavil, Viibryd. Effexor, Xanax, Depakote (called “Epival” in Canada) but how do they come up with these names? It doesn’t seem to make much sense!

 Actually, it makes perfect sense. A drug on the market has 4 names(1): a chemical name, a company name, a generic name, and a brand name. The examples I listed are brand names.

The chemical name is a scientific name given by the meds structure and rarely heard of for consumers. A company developing that specific drug will use the chemical name before giving it a generic name.

The generic name is given to identify a drug during its (useful) clinical lifetime. This is it’s “INN”.(2) It includes pharmaceutical substances or active ingredients. It has a unique name that is used worldwide.

When a company patents a drug, its trademark name is made, which is owned by the company and only they can use it. This goes away when the patent expires and you can get a generic. Some drugs, like Depakote/Epival, have more than one brand name. (3)

There are naming rules for medications! They sway away from h, j & k because of pronunciation problems. In English, it could make sense, but it could potentially be insulting in another language.

The Greek and Latin roots are studied when naming a drug. A brand name is often more catchy than the generic name, and also easier to pronounce. All of the meds I take, except for Abilify, are generic. Generics tend to cost less and have more companies competing to make the best generic. Contrary to popular belief, generics are pretty much exactly the same as the brand-name drug. The name can’t have any connotations of “promising to be better” in it, either.(4)

For example, Geodon (Geo-don) means “down to earth”. It can get really confusing!



  2. International Non-proprietary Name