Kevin Drum

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

Today, LA Times columnist David Lazarus answers a question I’ve been curious about for some time: where do the generic names for drugs come from? For example, the two chemo drugs I take are Pomalyst™ and Darzalex™, aka pomalidomide and daratumumab. But where do those generic names come from?

The answer, it turns out, is two women who work for USAN, the United States Adopted Names program. Stephanie Shubat explains how they come up with generic names for pharmaceuticals:

Shubat said this is done primarily by assigning uniform “stems” to drug names — that is, drugs with similar structures or purposes will have similar-sounding names, or parts of their names. The anti-anxiety drug lorazepam, for instance, would share “azepam” with similar medications; cortisone derivatives would have “cort” somewhere in their generic name.

The artistry comes in the assignation of a prefix, Shubat said. Unlike with celecoxib, the prefix shouldn’t hark back to the name-brand drug. Nor should it be potentially offensive in any language….She also said USAN will put the kibosh on generic names that include the letters W, K, H, J and Y, because they could create confusion abroad for non-English speakers with different pronunciations….“Sometimes I look at license plates for new prefix ideas,” Shubat confided. “Sometimes I borrow from the names of cats or dogs.”

I figured out the “stem” part of this long ago, since similar drugs usually have identical stems. But I could never make any sense out of the stuff before that. I always figured it must have something to do with the specific chemical compound, but boy was I wrong. It comes from license plates and cat names. Yeesh.

However, I’m curious about Shubat’s claim that they no longer allow generic names that are too similar to the trademarked name. Take a look at the two chemo drugs I use. Both of them borrow the first three letters of the trademark name as the first three letters of the generic name. Apparently the pharmaceutical folks are trickier about getting their way than Shubat thinks.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate