Medicine Cabinet Etymology: 12 Product Names Explained

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

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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

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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.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From? Darmell Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

Game of Thrones Fans Have Been Mispronouncing Khaleesi


While Game of Thrones fans are busy poring over every still image and official trailer released for the show's final season in the hope of noticing some tiny detail that might hint at what's to come, David Peterson—the linguist who creates the series' fictional languages—dropped a huge piece of information: we've all been mispronouncing  Khaleesi.

While being interviewed for The Allusionist podcast, Peterson described the rampant mispronunciation as "a real thorn in my side." So just how should we be saying the Dothraki word?

"I wanted to make sure if something was spelled differently, it was pronounced differently," Peterson explained of his process of transforming the handful of Dothraki words George R.R. Martin had created into a full language. "That worked pretty well for everything except the word Khaleesi ... There's no way it should be pronounced 'ka-LEE-see' based on the spelling. So I had to decide, 'Am I going to respell this thing because I know how people are going to pronounce this, or am I going to honor that spelling and pronounce it differently?' I made the latter decision and I think it was the wrong decision."

(That said, in his book Living Language Dothraki, Peterson writes that "many Dothraki words have multiple pronunciation variants, often depending on whether the speaker is native or non-native. Khaleesi, for example, has three separate pronunciations: khal-eh-si, khal-ee-si, and kal-ee-si," which at a later point in the book spelled is "ka-lee-si.")

Given that Daenerys Targaryen has a mouthful of other titles at her disposal, we'll just call her the Mother of Dragons from now on.

Game of Thrones returns for its final season on April 14, 2019.

[h/t: Digital Spy]