Farxiga. Hetlioz. Otezla. Zykadia. No, these are not the names of distant planets visited by the starship Enterprise. They're the brand names of medicines recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
If it seems as if drug names have been getting weirder, it's because, in some cases, they have. And they're likely to continue to, as the FDA approves new medicines at record rates, and regulations require a certain degree of differentiation from both other drugs and recognizable words—in any language.
"The more drugs that come out every year, the more novel the names need to be," said Scott Piergrossi, vice president of creative development at Brand Institute, which has worked with drug companies from Biogen to Allergan. So gone may be the days of simple, straightforward names like Prozac (approved in 1987) or Viagra (1998). "What you see approved today is very much a result of the environment in which we work."
That may be why drug brand names have so many odd—or to use Piergrossi's preferred term, "novel"—characteristics. For example, drug names use the letter Q three times as often as words in the English language. For Xs, it's 16 times as much. Zs take the cake, at more than 18 times the frequency you'd find them in English words. And Ws? You'll rarely see one in a drug name.
"For the most part, it's to get the name to be a bit more unique," Suzanne Martinez, senior identity consultant at InterbrandHealth, said of the proclivity for less frequently used letters. "Can you imagine if you had a name that had a Z, a Y and Q, and then you swapped those out to be an S, an I and a C? Suddenly you have what used to be a very unique name that now looks like everything else that's out there."