How do pharmaceuticals get names like fluoxetine, atorvastatin, modafinil, or sildenafil? Those are the generic names for some common prescription drugs. The drug company with the patent on the pill gets to choose the generic name. The U.S. Adopted Names Council has rules on such matters though, as The Week's James Harbeck writes:
• "Prefixes that imply 'better,' 'newer,' or 'more effective;' prefixes that evoke the name of the sponsor, dosage form, duration of action or rate of drug release should not be used."
• "Prefixes that refer to an anatomical connotation or medical condition are not acceptable."
• Certain letters or sets of letters also aren't allowed at the beginning of new generic names. These include me, str, x, and z.
Every name has two main parts. The back half of the drug name is the same for all drugs in a particular class — for instance, there are a whole raft of cholesterol-lowering drugs that end in -vastatin: atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), rosuvastatin (Crestor), simvastatin (Zocor), and several others.
image: detail of Damien Hirst's "In Search of Nirvana" (2007)