Medications: Secret Behind the Name

Pharmaceutical drugs typically have three names: a chemical name, brand name and a generic name. Though the chemical name describes the molecular structure of the drug, it is often too cumbersome for use by the general public. When a medication is approved by the responsible U.S. government agency (i.e. Food and Drug Administration), the drug is then given a generic name and a trade (i.e. brand) name.


Classically, the generic name and the brand name are developed and assigned by two different governing bodies. The generic name is provided by the United States Adopted Names Council, whereas the brand name is created, assigned and patented by the company developing the drug.


The process of naming a drug often starts years prior to approval for sale. Outside agencies are frequently utilized during early drug development to aid in the naming process as it is key in pharmaceutical marketing and consumer appeal. Early on in the process, the chemical name or a shortened version of the chemical name, which reflects and describes the chemical and organic structure of the drug, is utilized as a reference among drug researchers and chemists in the early stages.




Generic names are more frequently utilized by physicians as they frequently reflect the chemical structure or mechanism of the drug. As a dermatologist, it is crucial to understand the mechanism of each systemic injectable medication used in the treatment of psoriasis. The generic name often provides insight into the underlying mechanism of action. For example, the generic name of Humira is adalimumab (chemical name: human monoclonal D2E7 heavy chain anti-human tumor necrosis factor) wherein the “-ab” ending represents the fully human monoclonal antibody that binds to and inhibits a major player in the psoriasis pathway.

Development of a brand name is a challenging task, undeniably, as consumers are often attracted to distinct, memorable, “sexy” names. Drug names are often considered “odd” or unique in order to stand out among the thousands of other drugs within its class. The drug name should also be unique to prevent one medication mistakenly prescribed as a different medication—an avoidable safety concern. Pharmaceutical agencies are cautioned to avoid brand names that are overly promotional, advocating and advertising superiority of the drug among others in its class. All of the above are closely examined by the FDA in order to comply with current government agency standards for drug development.

Why do medication names commonly contain “X”, “Y” and “Z”?

The letters, “X”, “Y” and “Z” are commonly implemented in the development of brand names as they are unique, despite being considered a pronunciation nightmare by the common consumer. Interestingly, numerous drugs prescribed to solely females frequently have the letters “A”, “M”, “L” or “S”—considered by many as more “elegant”, soft and feminine (i.e. birth control pills, such as Yasmin, Seasonale, Alesse, Aranelle).

Often times the brand name is developed to help the consumer understand the purpose and use of the drug (i.e. Metaxalone (brand name: Skelaxin) is a muscle or “skeletal” relaxer; Isotretinoin (brand names: Ascorbica, Accutane) are oral vitamin A derivatives). Brand names may be also reflect a hyphenated version of the generic name (i.e. Minocycline (brand name: Minocin)).


The brand and generic names may further aid the consumer in understanding the type of disease or the infectious agent targeted by the drug. For example, Terbinafine (brand name: Lamisil) is utilized in dermatology in the treatment of fungal infections, specifically targeting Tinea infections caused by a fungus called Trichophyton tonsurans—the “T” in Terbinafine is a friendly reminder for both the physician and the patient that this antifungal medication targets the “Trichophyton” species and is used in the treatment of Tinea infections.

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