Those Crazy Drug Names
Here are two things people are likely to say when I tell them I create names for a living:
- “Wow, really? Sounds like a lot of fun!”
- “Do you make up those crazy drug names?”
To #1, I reply honestly that, like most professions, name development is often fun and always a lot of work. Playing with language is my favorite occupation; persuading busy, distracted executives to make a decision about a name ranks, shall we say, somewhat lower on my list.
I’m equally honest about #2, which sometimes is phrased more bluntly: “Do you come up with those idiotic drug names with the weird-ass spellings? Xeljanz? Takhzyro? Skyrizi?”
My answer: Yep, those names do seem weird; and nope, I don’t do that.
To be precise: I once — and only once — worked on a pharmaceutical naming project, many years ago. I was hired as a subcontractor, along with several other namers, by a big agency that specialized in drug names. I went in with my usual optimism, but the work was a grind: endless tiny shifts of letters and syllables to meet the extremely exacting requirements of the naming brief. To this day I don’t know whether any of the names on our very long lists were deemed acceptable.
I’m not sorry I took the gig, because it gave me new understanding of, and respect for, this naming specialty. Would I do it again? No way. I’ve named lots of companies and products in many industries — software, logistics, hospitality, wine, food, medical devices — but I’m happy to leave pharma naming to the specialists, of whom there are a handful in North America. Those specialists have my deep respect, because pharma naming is tough, tedious, and thankless labor.
More crucially, drug names matter in ways that names for other products generally don’t. Mix up the names of two microwave ovens or two shaving creams and, at worst, it’s an annoyance. Confuse the names of two prescription drugs and you might become seriously ill — or die.
New brand names need to pass a few tests. Ideally, they should be pronounceable. (As we’ll see, drug names often fail that test.) They need to be…