Where are the Smith Brothers when we need them?

I have a proposal.

It is motivated by the bewildering number of drugs introduced over the past few dozen years, and the stupid – OK, I won’t mince words – idiotic, unintelligible, and counter intuitive names they have been given. Not only are they impossible to remember, but trying to spell them is like giving cardio pulmonary resuscitation to a language that was born dead.

Worse, they have absolutely no mnemonic value. Mnemonic, according to my faithful Webster’s Dictionary, means, “assisting or intended to assist memory.”

Examples of good mnemonic names are: Hamburger Helper. Jiffy Lube. Mr. Clean. Raid. Head and Shoulders. Fruit of the Loom. Lean Cuisine. Weight Watchers. And Roto Rooter. This last, in fact, is so good at conveying what it does that it has been appropriated by medicine to describe the process of cleaning plaque out of coronary arteries.

Products named after their founders can be equally as impressive: Levis. Tiffany’s. Nestles. Campbell’s. Hershey’s. McDonald’s. Not only are they memorable, they often find permanent resting places in our hearts. Levis? Everybody has a favorite pair of Levi jeans. Tiffany’s? We’ve all wanted to meet or be Audrey Hepburn having breakfast there. Campbell’s? Impossible not to think about Saltine crackers floating in a big bowl of tomato soup. Similarly, Hershey has our undivided loyalty for its kisses, and McDonald’s for its hamburgers (although my favorite has always been fish sandwiches with extra tartar sauce.)

Which brings us to the problem.

If it is possible for ordinary products to have snappy, catchy, unforgettable names, why are the drugs on which our lives depend given names impossible to decipher, pronounce, and understand?

Let’s take a look at some heart medications (just typing the letters gives me a headache): Verapamil, Nicardipine, Cardizem, Diltiazem, Coreg, Nadolol, Imdur, Isordil, Lanoxin, Lasix.

Not one has a recognizable reference point in reality. Not one contains a noun – “Thyroid,” “Rapid Heart Beat,” “Cough” – with a recognizable meaning. Not one describes the conditions that these medications alleviate, which ailments they cure, what they are, and what they do.

Verapamil sounds like a tail-less rodent who burrows into boxes of Cream of Wheat. Cardizem? A pickpocket who deflates the tires on minivans. Coreg? A mutation of one of Queen Elizabeth’s dogs. Let’s take a name-recognition test. Some of these medications are for psychiatric problems and some are for heart disease. We’ll see if you can figure out which is which: Abilify. Plavix. Amoxapine. Amlodipine. Nifedipine. Nortrilen. Zestril. Nalorex.

Wasn’t that fun?

Imagine how much more fun it would be if you had to search through half a dozen medicine bottles while suffering from depression, anxiety, angina, and feeling chest pains? Sort of like trying to distinguish between gobbledygook, gobbledegoke, goobledigock, gobledegookk, and cobbledegoak with a migraine headache, in the dark, when we had left our prescription eyeglasses in the car.

Perfectly clear to absolutely no one.

Ablify is an antipsychotic medicine. So why not call it Abby’s or Abraham’s or Abel’s Anti-psychotic Medicine? The label would describe its purpose, and we would know to take one when our doorknobs started to look like snarling wolverines. Plavix. It sounds like something that should clean teeth, but it actually prevents blood clots. Wouldn’t it be sane and lovely, then, to call it Paul’s (Or Pedro’s or Peterson’s) Blood Clot Medicine? Amoxapine is an antidepressant. Nifedipine relieves chest pains. Nortrilen is an anti-panic drug. Zestril treats high blood pressure. Nalorex is for alcoholism.

But, shush. Don’t tell anybody. It’s all a Big Secret.

Which brings me to my suggestion. That we demystify medications. That we follow the lead of Smith Brothers Cough Drops. We know what they are for and what they do. We also know when and why to take Bayer Aspirin, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia, Buckley’s Chest Congestion Mixture, and Mucinex Expectorant.

Years ago, “miracle cures” were made and sold by con artists and quacks. For sheer literary merit, my favorites include: Dr. Bonkers Egyptian Oil. Lydia Pinkham’s Herb Medicine. Kickapoo Sagwa Heart Remedy. Mack Mahon Rattlesnake Oil Liniment for Rheumatism. And Dr. Lindley’s Epilepsy Remedy.

These patent medicines couldn’t cure you and there was a pretty good chance that they might kill you, but at least those old charlatans knew how to give something a comprehensible name.

Odd, isn’t it, when we have real miracle medicines that can do real good (if we could get the childproof cap off the bottle), that we don’t have a single, solitary clue what is inside the bottle ... or what it can do.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit: shellyreuben.com.

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben

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