Medicine Cabinet Etymology: 12 Product Names Explained

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Most medicines and over-the-counter products have names that sound like unintelligible strings of chemical jargon, or sound like they were born in a focus group. But a few familiar drugs and products have names with interesting origins. Let's take a look at the etymologies behind your medicine cabinet's holdings.

1. Premarin

The controversial hormone replacement therapy drug gets its name from the same place it takes its estrogen: pregnant mares' urine. Particularly astute readers will have realized that to get pregnant mares' urine, you need pregnant mares. Wyeth, the subsidiary of Pfizer that produces Premarin, works with ranchers to maintain a steady supply of pregnant mares. The foals to which these mares give birth are one of the unwanted byproducts of Premarin production, which has raised concerns from animal rights groups. Now non-profit groups like the Pregnant Mare Urine Foal Acquisition Network, Inc. work to help get these unwanted foals into good homes.

2. Tylenol

Pharmacists and physicians refer to the drug we know as Tylenol by the abbreviation "APAP," which comes from the chemical's formal name, "N-acetyl-para-aminophenol." The name "Tylenol" also traces its roots back to this chemical name but with different emphasis; it comes from stressing "N-aceTYL-para-aminophENOL."

3. Listerine


The stout mouthwash bears the name of famed 19th-century surgeon Joseph Lister, but he didn't invent the product. Instead, Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert of St. Louis created the first batch in 1879. They didn't have any intention of making a mouthwash; the pair had hoped to create a general-purpose antiseptic. They named their creation in honor of Lister, who was a longtime advocate of sterile surgical procedures.

Listerine didn't become a mouthwash until 1895, and even then it wasn't a smash hit right away. At various points it was marketed as a floor cleaner, a cure for gonorrhea, a cold remedy, a dandruff cure, and an aftershave tonic.

4. K-Y Jelly

Johnson & Johnson's personal lubricant brand got its start as a surgical lubricant in 1904. Since the lubricant had a natural water base, medical professionals loved that it was easier to clean up than its petroleum-based competitors. Although the product became popular, no one's quite sure where the initials "K" and "Y" came from, not even Johnson & Johnson. On the brand's website, the company admits, "The origins of the brand name "˜K-Y' are unknown. Two popular myths are that it was created in Kentucky, hence "˜K-Y,' or that the letters represent the key ingredients used to make the lubricant. Neither of these is true. The name continues to remain a bit of a mystery."

5. Rolaids

The antacid best friend of the upset stomach takes its name from its iconic packaging. Although you can buy them in bottles now, Rolaids originally came in foil-wrapped rolls, a marketing decision that persists even today.

6. Heroin

The highly addictive street drug probably isn't in your medicine cabinet today, but when Bayer introduced the product in 1895, it was designed as a less addictive substitute to morphine, which was widely abused at the time. The name "heroin" came from the German heroisch, because of the drug made users feel heroic, euphoric, and strong.

7. Morphine

The drug that heroin was designed to replace takes its name from Greek mythology. The name "morphine" is an allusion to Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.

8. Codeine

The pain-suppressing alkaloid is derived from the opium poppy, so it's only natural that the opiate takes its name from the Greek word kodeia, which literally translates into "poppy head."

9. Carmex


The wildly popular lip balm in the yellow pot gets its name from Carma Labs, the site of its invention. While hearing "Carma Labs" conjures up images of white coats and teams of top-flight scientists, the actual labs were a bit humbler than that. In fact, the "lab" was really a kitchen; inventor Alfred Woelbing perfected his balm in 1937 while working on his family's stove. Woelbing and his wife made and packaged Carmex in their kitchen and sold it out of their car's trunk for an amazing 20 years until Carma Labs got a proper home in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa in 1957.

10. Aspirin

As you might remember from your high school chemistry classes, aspirin is also known as a compound called acetylsalicylic acid. The acid is found naturally in the flowers and leaves of the Spiraea ulmaria, so according to some sources, the name "aspirin" is a combination of the prefix a- for "without" and the name of the plant, to stress that the pills are produced chemically without using the plant.

The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, posits that the word "aspirin" comes from the German name for acetylsalicylic acid, acetylierte spirsäure.

11. Vicks

The maker of VapoRub and Nyquil traces its roots back to Greensboro, NC, in the 1890s. Pharmacist Lunsford Richardson began mixing up home remedies at his shop, but he needed a name for marketing his concoctions. After seeing an ad for a company called Vick's Seeds he decided to name his brands Vick's Family Remedies in honor of his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick. While Richardson initially sold 21 family remedies, one of them was particularly popular; Vicks Croup and Pneumonia Salve was the forerunner to what we now know as Vicks Vaporub.

12. Bengay

Contrary to what you might have thought, there was never a creative doctor named Ben Gay. French physician Dr. Jules Bengué realized in the late 19th century that menthol and methyl salicylate provided a nice warming, pain-killing sensation when rubbed on the skin. In 1898, Bengué brought his product to America with a twist on his own surname as Ben-Gay.

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August 3, 2010 - 9:38am
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