A version of this post originally appeared in The Week.
Which of the following are names from science fiction and fantasy, and which are brand names of prescription drugs? See how well you do.
1. Alixia: Non-human female? Or cancer chemotherapy?
2. Arborlon: City? Or cream for itching?
3. Autloc: Aztec priest? Or blood pressure medication?
4. Caelyx: Magical being? Or cancer chemotherapy?
5. Dannyl: Magician? Or prostate medication?
6. Exjade: Female from another planet? Or iron toxicity treatment?*
7. Frova: Mountain dweller? Or migraine medication?
8. Gleevec: Dwarf reptile? Or leukemia chemotherapy?
9. Isentress: Citadel? Or HIV treatment?
10. Jalyn: Swordfighter? Or prostate medication?
11. Jevtana: High consul? Or prostate cancer chemotherapy?
12. Kalita: Female human? Or migraine treatment?
13. Keppra: Valley? Or epilepsy treatment?
14. Lupron Depot: Frontier town? Or prostate cancer injection?
15. Luxia: Tribeswoman? Or weight loss pill?
16. Morgaine: Half-sister of King Arthur? Or hair growth treatment?
17. Pralix: Psychic? Or cholesterol medication?
18. Qvar: Space psychic? Or asthma medication?
19. Reeval: Female being? Or antidepressant?
20. Riva: Kingdom? Or drug for vertigo?
21. Syvar: Vulcan officer? Or asthma medication?
22. Tarka: Spaceship pilot? Or blood pressure medication?
23. Tracleer: Musician? Or blood pressure medication?
24. Trantor: Planet? Or cholesterol medication?
25. Trelstar: Satellite? Or prostate cancer chemotherapy?
26. Valeron: River? Or dementia medication?
27. Zorac: Time Lord? Or psoriasis treatment?
Here are the answers. You might be in for some surprises!
1. Alixia is the sister of Neelix in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.
2. Arborlon is a city in The Shannara Chronicles series of books by Terry Brooks.
3. Autloc is an Aztec priest in an episode of Dr. Who.
4. Caelyx is cancer chemotherapy (generic name doxorubicin).
5. Dannyl is a magician in The Novice, by Trudi Cannavan.
6. Exjade is a treatment for osteoarthritis (generic name deferasirox).
7. Frova is a migraine medication (generic name frovatriptan).
8. Gleevec is chemotherapy for leukemia (generic name imatinib).
9. Isentress is medication for HIV (generic name raltegravir).
10. Jalyn is a combination medication to treat prostate overgrowth (generic names tamsulosin and dutasteride).
11. Jevtana is chemotherapy for prostate cancer (generic name cabazitaxel).
12. Kalita is a female human and a member of a resistance movement in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
13. Keppra is a medication for epilepsy (generic name levetiracetam).
14. Lupron Depot is an injection for prostate cancer (generic name leuprolide; depot injections are injections into a muscle that gradually release the medication over a long time).
15. Luxia is a member of the Seska tribe in an episode of the British sci-fi series Blake’s 7.
16. Morgaine is the half-sister of King Arthur in the Mists of Avalon series by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
17. Pralix is a psychic in an episode of Dr. Who.
18. Qvar is an asthma treatment (generic name beclomethasone).
19. Reeval is a female character from an episode of Blake’s 7.
20. Riva is a trick! It’s a kingdom in the Belgariad series of books by David Eddings, but it’s also a brand of the vertigo medication betahistine available in some countries.
21. Syvar is a Vulcan officer in Star Trek: Deep Space 9.
22. Tarka (pictured above) is a combination drug for high blood pressure (generic names verapamil and trandolapril).
23. Tracleer is a drug for high blood pressure (generic name bosentan).
24. Trantor is a planet in the Foundation series of books by Isaac Asimov.
25. Trelstar is a treatment for prostate cancer (generic name triptorelin).
26. Valeron is a river in the Darkover series of books by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
27. Zorac is Time Lord in Dr. Who… but also a psoriasis medication (it’s the British brand name of Tazorac, generic name tazarotene). Tricked again!
Why was that so hard? (Which it surely was unless you’re a hardcore sci-fi/fantasy geek or a licensed pharmacist.) Why are they all so similar?
To be fair, there’s also a selection effect: I picked ones that would be hard to guess. There are plenty of sci-fi and fantasy names that don’t sound like drug names—in fact, fantasy novels often like the Celtic flavor, with lots of double l’s and th’s and so on, and sci-fi characters often have names pretty much like normal human names. There are also drug names that are more obviously drug names—and ones you see more often, like Prozac, that would be slam-dunks.
But what the names above have in common is that they are written to be catchy, or to have an exotic flavor. The least common letters in normal English usage are V, K, X, J, Q, and Z, and the least common vowel (when it’s used as one) is Y. So words that use those tend to stand out more, and you can see how common those uncommon letters are in these names. On the other hand, many names that are thought to be attractive end in a, so that gets used quite a bit too. Drug names also are more likely than ordinary words to end in on or l or c for historical reasons.
But they still all conform to our expectations of what a word should be like. All of the names have sequences of consonants and vowels that are allowable in English (well, except Qvar, but we can still pronounce it). There’s no Rfova or Ejxade. Most of them are two syllables, and they tend to have one syllable that is clearly heavier—it has a long vowel or two consonants following the vowel—so the pronunciation is clear. They may be exotic, but they’re familiarly exotic.
They also may have familiar sounds—some drug names remind you in some way of the disease they’re treating or the solution they offer to the problem (think or Rogaine for hair loss), and sci-fi and fantasy names may have a bit of an echo of some familiar name that they can draw some force from. Just as long as they’re still catchy.
And one more thing: They’re all made up by nerds—sci-fi/fantasy writers or drug company wonks. And anyway, with drug companies named things like Glaxo and Shire, what do you expect?
*Correction, Jan. 21, 2014: A previous version of this post stated that Exjade is a treatment for osteoarthritis. It is in fact a treatment for too much iron in the blood.
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