The Origins of 5 Well Known Drug Names

Gerald Clarke

Would aspirin by any other name taste as sweet? Where do the names of the drugs we use come from? Here we explore the tigers, heroes, gods, spires and um... pencils which are found in the etymology of well known medicines. Like many words in our language, Pharmaceutical comes from Greek: pharmakon.  A pharma-con might mean something different in the modern English language.

Aspirin- One of the most common drugs in the world, few users of this useful medicine would know where the word comes from. Salicyclic acid was called spirsäure in German in the 19thcentury; this word comes from Spiraea a plant from which salicyclic acid was purified. The plant’s name comes from Greek word speira meaning coil or spire. Since the acid exists as acetylsalicyclic acid, Felix Hoffmann who synthesised the drug while working for Bayer, an ‘A’ for acetyl was added to the front of the Germanic word for the acid and it was patented as Aspirin.

Heroin- Developed by the same team as aspirin, heroin had huge success as a non-addictive cough medicine, a use which makes modern audiences cringe. The name evokes thoughts of heroes, another word of Greek origin which may have its roots in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root ‘*ser’ meaning 'to protect'.

Viagra- Many drugs are purposefully invented words meant to sound like or conjure images of a desirable effect, as in heroin’s case. This makes some drugs difficult to tie down as in the case of Viagra. The most likely theory is that it was inspired by the Sanskrit word vyaghra which means tiger. It has also been suggested that the word is intended to suggest other ‘v’ words like vigor, virility and vitality.

Penicillin- This is a word coined by Alexander Fleming who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on Penicillin. The name derived from the fungus Penicillium notatum whose important antibacterial properties were noticed by Fleming. The name of the fungus comes from its shape which resembles a paintbrush which in Latin is penicillus.

Morphine-Morphine fits the same pattern as some others on our list in that it was discovered by a German pharmacist and is of Latin roots. The name comes from the drug’s sleep inducing properties as the god of dreams in Ovid was called Morpheus. This word itself may come from a PIE root meaning shape or form. 

Honorable mentions: Artemisinin, the antimalarial named for the plant Artemisia annua. The root of the plant's name is Artemis a god whose name fittingly means “she who heals sickness”. Atropine the muscarinic antagonist comes from the Greek atropos meaning inflexible, it is also the name of the Fate who determines how a person will die and cuts the thread representing their life. Nicotine named for the botanical name of the tobacco plant which comes from Jean Nicot the French ambassador to Portugal who sent tobacco to France in 1561. This raises the question, should the t in nicotine be silent?


Do you have any interesting pharmacological etymologies? Share them in the comments below!

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