How Big Pharma keeps you calmer

The etymological wizardry of our drugs.

New Statesman

Millions of people in this country get up every morning and put something with a funny name in their mouths – in 2009 (the last year figures were available), some 39.1 million prescriptions for antidepressants were written in the UK; and while I believe this indicates a mass hysteria (among doctors and pharmacists as much as their patients and customers), I’m minded to investigate the queered semantics of proprietary drugs.

Seroxat is the name paroxetine – a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (or SSRI), and the most popular antidepressant pushed globally – is marketed under in the UK but in the US it’s called Paxil and in Australia either Aropax or Lumin. I love to imagine the blue-sky sessions at which drug marketers dream up these monikers. I picture them sitting around featureless lozenges of beige MDF flinging these mangled bits of verbiage back and forth: “Grandax!” one snaps, “No, Pildernox . . .” a second pitches in. I wonder what rationale decides them on one repellent  bit of gobbledegook over another – but not for long because it’s all rather obvious.

Future proof

Take “Seroxat”; well, the prefix “Ser” it shares with such suitable mental ascriptions as “serene”, “serious” and “servile”; while the stem “ox” is de rigueur for all sorts of drug names (along with “ix”, “ax”, “ex” and even “ux”). The prolific use of Xs in drug names is probably representative of no fewer than three buried intentions on the part of the marketers. One is to evoke “Rx” – the abbreviation of the Latin “recipe” (“take”) used in the US for a prescription – in the mind of the miserable. The second is to introduce a note of futurism – such syllables rarely occurring in English, they tend to imply a shiny, happy realm of neologism. And the third is to subtly imply the near-alliterative and highly desirable state – to be relaxed.

As for the suffix “at” (and please note, I know full well that “Ser” and “at” aren’t really these parts of speech, but I ask you: what the hell else can you call them?), this seems to me to indicate a return to the solid virtues of the Anglo-Saxon, being cognate with such words as “fat”, “pat” and “mat”, unexceptionable terms that anchor this creepy brain-chemistry-bender to the homely and quotidian. I could be wrong about all this and the wonks at GlaxoSmithKline (itself a name to conjure with), have no rationale for naming Seroxat at all but came up with it after making free with their products and lying in a blissed-out heap on the expansive carpet tiling of their conference room.

But somehow I doubt this – there’s Paxil to contend with after all, which says to me: “Take peace and you won’t be ill”. When we get to “Lumin”, it’s crystal-meth-clear that someone gave one of the more lowly marketers her head that day and she decided to call a dull pill a luminous spade.

Latin lesson

This lunacy surrounding the naming of proprietary drugs is nothing new – since the dawn of quackery (sorry, “medicine”), the snake-oilers have been coming up with appellations they believe we’ll find tasty – and as if to pay obeisance to Big Pharma’s shareholders, we’ve swallowed them. Back in the day there was at least a certain honesty about Bayer’s naming of diacetylmorphine as “Heroin”, although its marketing of the drug as a cure for morphine addiction ranks as one of the world’s most infamous blunders. By the time the swinging sixties rolled around the mutually reinforcing reliance on mood-altering drugs between the legal and illegal sectors of society resulted in a semantic shift towards such cod-Latinisms as “Valium” and “Librium”, the aim of which was to make mass sedation appear positively classical.

In my time I’ve been prescribed a fair number of these drugs and I can say with some bitterness that the pills never worked for me. Ascendis – it keeps you up; Concordin – irenic once more; Lustral – shining through the long dark night of the soul; and Dutonin – sounds like a car tyre, makes you feel trodden down. Nowadays, my mood ungoverned, I’m free to think the most outrageous things, such as: might it not be a good idea to insist that drug companies give their preparations names that tell the user what they really do? I suspect that if Seroxat were renamed “chemically equable but non-orgasmic” – or Chemeqnonorg – then instead of 39.1 million prescriptions for it being filled, people might be more prepared to put up with their aptly-named lows and highs.

More from Will Self: newstatesman.com/writers/will_self