The Mount Everest of Drug Names: Abilify

December 16, 2008 § 6 Comments

polio_vaccine_posterAs a son of a doctor, my dad would often bring home random swag branded with drug names that left me as the only college kid I knew who would wear a shirt for anxiety medicine while using a pen with a Viagra logo on it. (Feel free to make inappropriate jokes about the relationship between ink and pens.) However, having all that swag around led to a familiarity and a mild fascination with all the different drug names and how the drug companies come up with them.

So, over the years, I’ve casually taken note of how the names of drugs have slowly changed from names that sounded scientific, like Amoxil, to names that sounded like a brand of bedtime tea, like the sleeping pill Lunesta. A few weeks ago, though, I sat stunned when I saw a television ad for the new drug Abilify. After initially laughing at the name and cheap-looking logo, I soon realized that the paradigm of drug names may have just shifted quite dramatically and it deserved a little more thought and research.

The first paradigm shift is in the phonetics of the name, “Abilify”. More often than not, drugs contain the letters V, X, Y, or Z, which make for interesting syllabic twists and unique names. As my dad would soon inform me, in the past 10 years, a lot of drugs started sounding the same (with names like Zyrtec, Zantac, and Xanax; Prevacid and Prevacol; Lotrel and Lortab—and on and on), making it clear that Abilify stood out in this context. Abilify obviously only contains the letter Y, and it’s at the end of the word. This is the only drug I found that ends in a Y.

Consider, out of the Top 199 drugs, the names contain:

43 instances of X
15 instances of Z
42 instances of V
25 instances of Y

That’s 62.8% of drugs with an X, Y, V, or Z in them. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that’s 100 times more common than those letters occur in a standard English dictionary.

The second shift is that it’s the first prescription drug name that’s a verb. Yes, the very first one. (Aleve works as a verb also, but it’s over-the-counter). What makes Abilify a verb? According to Oxford American Dictionaries, adding the suffix -fy to a noun “form[s] a verb denoting making or producing”. (Think: Amplify, Falsify, Deify, Horrify.) So, you are no longer taking a drug, you are actually making your body/self/life “able”, allowing you to “Abilify your body/self/life”.

While I don’t mean to denigrate someone’s needed medicine to balance themselves mentally, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

But all of that doesn’t constitute a paradigm shift until this last part is factored in. After this research, I began parsing out how drug names are created. (For all you branding, marketing, and design dorks like me, you should get a kick out of this.)

In general, the history of brand-name prescription drugs goes like this: Prior to the mid-to-late 1980s, the prescription drug brand name was often a derivative or shorthand for what the scientific name of the drug is. For example, the drug Amoxicillin was given the brand name Amoxil, while the drug Naproxen was given the brand name Anaprox. These sorts of names made the drug easier to pronounce, yet still sounded “scientific”.

Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1980s, the names started changing, This time, the drug names were derived from what the drug did. For example, the drug “Prevacid” is a drug for those with ulcers or persistant heartburn. It works by preventing your stomach from making acid. Take the words “prevent” and “acid” and you have “Prevacid”.

Not too much later, in the late 90s, drug companies changed the name game again. Only this time, they went for how the drug will make you feel. “Celebrex”, for example, is derived from “celebrate”. In Italian, the drug “Allegra” means “Cheerful, Lively”. On the further reaches of this movement is the sleeping drug “Ambien”, derived from “Ambient”, which connotes relaxation.

The reason these shifts are significant is because brands tell stories, they have an implicit and/or explicit meaning and we consciously and/or unconsciously absorb these meanings. Basically, it’s rhetoric. So, as the drug companies have fought to be heard above the noise of the marketplace, they’ve become increasingly savvy in telling the story of their drug through unique names that appeal to different aspects of the human psyche. And since the names tell stories, they all follow Aristotle’s ancient storytelling techniques of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos to a surprising degree.

The Ethos of a drug name is that of phonetics. That is, the credibility of the name is tied up in the sound of the name, that it sounds like a thing of science.

The Logos of a drug name is what the drug does, or treatment, like Prevacid.

The Pathos of a drug name is appealing to how the drug will make you feel, your emotion, like Celebrex.


Of course, not every name fits neatly into one of these boxes as there are crossover names. But, each drug name so far fits somewhere in this spectrum. Which brings me back to Abilify.

Abilify does not sound scientific in any way, shape, or form, so it loses on Ethos/Phonetics. As Logos/Treatment, it also fails gloriously because the name doesn’t tell you what it does. As a matter of fact, any drug that helped you in any way could be called Abilify. Think about it: Headache? Abilify. Muscle Tear? Abilify. Diarrhea? Abilify. High Blood Pressure? Abilify. The name literally means nothing. You could “Abilify” your car, for God’s sake.

So, that leaves us with how the name of the drug makes you feel, its Pathos/Emotion. Making yourself feel “able” is definitely a feeling—a good feeling, which is nice. (As an anti-psychotic medicine, it hopefully makes those people feel very good.) The feeling it connotes is one of empowerment. But, as a verb instead of a noun, it shifts the paradigm from a “thing” to consider to something to “do” to get better. And with that, it becomes not about Phonetics, Treatment, or Emotion, it becomes an Idea, which, in turn, requires action to make real.

The risk with a drug name that requires action, is it shifts the customer out of the realm of passive story-receiving to one of active story-making. A story where you are the active player, not the name telling you the story. And I have absolutely no idea how this fits into branding as storytelling or if I’m way off-base, but my immediate feeling is that making the customer an Actor brings a brand name into a form of Interaction, which really complicates things. And it also places it at great risk for being a total and complete failure, the kind of thing that goes down in medical history as “The thing to never do”.

However, on the other side, if Abilify has any success, then drug names could change drastically from here on out. In other words, drugs could then be named anything that doesn’t sound medical or scientific and doesn’t have a direct logic to a treatment, but is just an abstract Idea.

Finally, if my analysis is way off-base, then at the very least, Abilify sits at the highest tippy-top peak of Emotion, the Mt. Everest of drug names, either daring and smart, or risky and stupid, but where there is room for only one flag: Abilify.


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§ 6 Responses to The Mount Everest of Drug Names: Abilify

  • Shaun Gummere says:

    Found your blog via @coffeekid …

    Great post. To me, there’s something uniquely American to its glib, foolish cadence. Our own brand of Newspeak. In this, the idea embedded in the word deserves special disdain.

  • Ashley says:

    As my wife likes to say, “Levitra — it levitates your pitra”.

  • jefftzucker says:

    Shaun – Sorry it took me so long to reply. Glad you found my blog, that @coffeekid guy is something else. I like how you recognized its “cadence”–that’s a good way to put it. Interesting, too, that you call it “glib, foolish”. Characterizing it in such a way suggests that the word itself—its rhythm and sound—carries a rhetorical meaning as well. Am I grasping this correctly?

    On the other hand, the idea embedded in the word is, to me, absurd. I don’t know if I can so far as to “disdain” it, but I know what you’re getting at. There is a marketing and branding illness in the United States right now. By this, I mean that marketing and branding has gone so far that the average person (I despise the word “consumer” and all it connotes) is completely snowed over by it and to get through to people, marketing/branding companies have become very audacious and galling. For example, whether or not we love or hate a branding campaign is irrelevant, it’s the fact that we have any reaction at all. For example, I think about that Dannon yogurt “Activia” branding with “Bifidus Regularis”. Both are brand names made to sound medical but neither mean anything. It’s hysterical. ( ) Marketers and, yes, designers make up BS names to rise above the din of noise that is the marketplace and the fact that I openly mock a brand/identity doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that I remember it at all that’s notable. I think Abilify is a part of that same mess. It’s so audacious and frankly, insulting, that we remember it and discuss it. I think Pepsi has done something similar recently with their logo change.

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