I was leafing through People magazine at the hairdresser’s, as one does, when my attention was hijacked by an ad for a new drug with an unusual name.
That’s actually two unusual names: “ixekizumab” (the generic name) and “Taltz” (the trade name). But Taltz was the name that made me stop and ponder, and later do some research. Can you guess why?
Hint: It has nothing to do with meaning.
In fact, I can’t tell you what, if anything, the Taltz name is intended to signify or suggest. (A few speculations below.) I do know that Taltz is s a new injectable treatment for plaque psoriasis from Eli Lilly, approved for use by prescription in March 2016. It doesn’t rhyme with “waltz,” as I at first surmised; rather, the vowel sound is closer to the A in pal or Cal.
But here’s why “Taltz” caught my attention, and why it stands out in the universe of drug names: it has only one syllable.
I had a hunch one-syllable pharmaceutical names were rare, and I confirmed that hunch with a statistical breakdown of the names of the 457 most popular drugs in the Drugs.com database. Of this name set, 246, or 53.8 percent, have three syllables; 84, or 18.3 percent, have four syllables; and 82, or 17.9 percent, have two syllables. Forty-five names, or about 10 percent, have five syllables; three names have six syllables; two names (hydrochlorothiazide and hydroxychloroquinine) have seven syllables, and one name (methylprednisolone) has six syllables.
Other than Taltz, just one name – Yaz, a contraceptive pill manufactured by Bayer – has one syllable. That gives Taltz a big advantage on the distinctiveness spectrum.
By the way, the opposite trends hold among tech-company and app names. Technology firms have something akin to a fetish for short names with as few syllables as possible. Think of one-syllable names like Slack, Lyft, Nest, and Waze; and short two-syllable names like Etsy, Uber, GoPro, Hulu, and Yahoo. Just this week, the ephemeral-messaging service Snapchat lopped off its second syllable and became Snap.
Pharmaceutical names, however, are subject to far more stringent regulations than other categories of names – not just from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) but also from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Many drug names also have to be available outside North America. And they must be unique, which isn’t true for most other categories of names. (Wineries and breweries can be almost as challenging to name as drugs.) Here’s a summary from Medscape of the requirements:
First and foremost, the name must be easy to remember. Ideally, it should be one physicians will like -- short and with a subliminal connotation of the drug. Some companies associate their drugs with certain letters (e.g., Upjohn with X and Glaxo with Z). If the drug is expected to be used eventually on a nonprescription basis, the name should not sound medicinal. There must be no trademark incompatibilities, and the company must take account of the drug's expected competition.
Each company's naming process is individualized, proprietary, and taken very seriously. Marketing departments are often very influential. An industry representative described the naming process as being "as complicated as a space shuttle launch; as you get down to the final countdown, you must have a very good reason to stop. . . . Marketing builds momentum for a name, and standing in the path of a good name is like standing in the path of a train: You do it only once."
Adding syllables can be one way to create a unique name and avoid confusion with another drug. (It doesn’t always work out: consider Serafem and Serophene, Razadyme and Rozerem, and other frequently confused drug-name pairs.)
Does “Taltz” carry a “subliminal connotation” of its benefits? Maybe. Its crisp consonants and single-syllable efficiency may suggest speed and effectiveness. The Z at the end of the name may be intended as a brand identifier: Like Glaxo, Eli Lilly makes a number of drugs with Z in their names, including Prozac, Gemzar, Symbyax, and Zyprexa (the company’s best-selling drug of all time). To me, “Taltz” suggests a surname: at first glance, I read it as Taitz, as in Orly Taitz, the infamous dentist-lawyer and birther conspiracist.
As for the generic name, ixekizumab, the stress falls on the second syllable; the suffix -zumab signifies “humanized antibody.” The rest of the word? No idea.