Where do drug names come from? According to Octavia Spencer's SNL character, the contacts in her cellphone

On SNL Saturday night, Octavia Spencer's character accuses Merck (and, apparently unknowingly, other drugmakers) of stealing drug names from her cellphone.

Drugmakers spend big money crafting the names of their new products. Specialists draw on the “personalities” of each letter of the alphabet—which is why we get so many Z’s and X’s—brainstorm dozens of candidates and run their ideas by the FDA for its all-important approval.

What comes out, in the end, are brand names that seem to describe extraterrestrial peoples, newly discovered tropical fruits, high-tech robotics tools, arcane mathematical models, new and perhaps ill-advised fusion cuisines ... you name it. Drug names are like Rorshach splotches, with perceptions that say as much about the beholder as the beheld.

Related: What's in a (drug) name? We asked the #FierceMadness champs


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And they’re prime candidates for spoofing. Just ask Saturday Night Live’s writers, who regularly satirize pharma and its marketing. A March 4 sketch puts forth a unified theory of drug names, articulated by episode host and 2017 Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer, for Hidden Figures.

The setting: An arbitration hearing in a claim against Merck, for stealing the Spencer character’s “intellectual property.” How? The company “named dozens of drugs after members of my family,” she claims.

Never mind that many of the drugs she then cites aren’t Merck products; we’re in SNL-land after all. But here’s how the argument goes. “In December 2004, the company created Seasonique,” Spencer’s character says, holding up a card bearing the Teva contraceptive pill’s logo. Name stolen! Years before that, in 1997, the character had a child, she says, calling that daughter into the room: “Please say hello to Seasonique Boniva Williams.”

The Spencer character goes on to cite her own name—Lyrica, Pfizer’s seizure and pain drug—and a series of others among cousins, neighbors, even a hairdresser. She introduces a colleague, Lunestra, who fell asleep on her keyboard at work, inspiring Merck to call a new insomnia drug by a similar name. And Boniva is, of course, the Roche osteoporosis med marketed by spokeswoman Sally Field.

“These people aren’t coming up with new drug names,” Spencer says. “They’re just flipping through the contacts in my phone.”

The kicker? Her dog’s name is Humira, and winning $20 million in this fictional dispute with Merck means she can “finally put Tylenol through college.”

Cue laughter, because drug names are—yes—funny. No funnier than those on many consumer products; consider Clorox, which might be a cough medicine in another lifetime, or Kaboom!, a bathroom cleaning product that could be a crude name for a GI med.

Want more drug-name commentary? Take a look at our 2015 drug-name bracket, the story beyond the choice of the bracket winner’s name, and the reader comments that came with it. And if you have your own thoughts, please share with me on Twitter. We might just come back with another drug-name contest sometime soon.

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