Future Tense

Comirna-what???

Why the Pfizer vaccine’s new name feels so awful to say.

The words "koe-mir'-na-tee," with cartoons of COVID molecules.
Illustration by Slate and Getty Images Plus

The reaction to the news that the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration should have been cause for pure celebration. But, even among fans of the vaccine, the reaction on social media was not entirely positive, thanks to its awkward name: Comirnaty. Twitter user Christopher Bouzy wrote, “The person(s) who came up with this name should never be allowed to name anything ever again. They shouldn’t even be allowed to name their pets.” Nancy Friedman, a linguistic expert on branding, opined that “Comirnaty is a meh name: it sounds strained and laborious.” She compared the Pfizer name with SpikeVax, the brand name currently being used for the Moderna vaccine in Europe. As Friedman noted on her blog, SpikeVax “is fun to say and it gets your attention, because spike is not a neutral word.”

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But Pfizer/BioNTech had gone with Comirnaty. According to the website Fierce Pharma, the name developed by the branding firm Brand Institute is a blend of four elements: COVID-19, immunity, mRNA (the vaccine technology that Comirnaty uses), and community.

My own first reaction to Comirnaty was also unease. As a phonetician—a linguist who studies how the sounds of the world’s languages are produced and perceived—I initially commiserated with others on Twitter who complained it feels like sticky peanut butter in the mouth. Linguistically, some aspects of Comirnaty are confusing in comparison to other English words we’re familiar with. For starters, according to the FDA press release, it should be pronounced koe-MIR-na-tee. Even that phonetic transcription choice is unclear: How are we supposed to pronounce ‘MIR’? While the letter sequence mir can rhyme with her (as in mirth), as I believe they are intending, it can also have other pronunciations, as in words like mirror or mired.

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Then, that er sound immediately provoked ridicule, recalling the beloved Ermahgerd meme. As Twitter user Tim Lampe quipped, “Strong Ermahgerd pronunciation of ‘community’ energy over here.” Ultimately, American English speakers will most likely pronounce it almost like community, except with co for the first syllable and mer instead of myu for the second syllable (koˈmɜ˞nɪɾi for fans of the International Phonetic Alphabet).

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Linguistic research shows that people are more likely to rate a nonword as having better wordlikeness when sequences of sounds in the nonword are more frequent in existing words of their language. For example, gwesht is considered an unlikely word of English, because the sequences gw and sht are found in few words of English. On the other hand, grisp, containing more frequent sequences like gr and sp, is rated as a better possible word of English. While there are some words that have elements similar to Comirnaty, it is a pretty limited set. Words like paternity, maternity, eternity, and, ironically, modernity, come to mind, but the sound sequence mirn in English is found mainly in the name Myrna, which peaked in popularity in 1938 according to the Social Security baby name database. This is enough to reduce the wordlikeness of Comirnaty. Also, longer nonwords are often rated as less wordlike than shorter ones.

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Another reason for initial discomfort with Comirnaty may have to do with its spelling. If it is supposed to evoke immunity and community (and be pronounced similarly), it would be more reassuring if it ended in ity. An -ity ending would have also ensured that readers knew to stress the mir syllable, since -ity always has what linguists call antepenultimate stress: stress on the third to last syllable, as in the inspirations of imMUnity and comMUnity. As for that a instead, the creators were clear that mirna is meant to evoke mRNA. And I can only assume that the little i was considered a visually minimal deviation from the mRNA acronym compared to e, which might have been a more phonetic spelling. Though, if they had gone with Comyrnaty, perhaps that could have been parlayed into a public health campaign to address vaccine hesitancy featuring Myrna vanquishing Rona.

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But the more I thought about Comirnaty, the more I started to root for it. It’s a little sappy and overwrought, but its goal is to package all of the magic of an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 into one nine-letter word. Linguists use the term “blends” to refer to those mashups of two or more words, from the common brunch to the humorous snowpocalyse to the trendy cronut. It’s not trivial to come up with a four-part blend, with one part being an acronym, no less. Even if the final product is a little unwieldy, I still applaud Brand Institute for its earnest effort.

Besides, as the Fierce Pharma article informs us, BioNTech and Pfizer were apparently considering alternatives like RnaxCovi and RNXtract. Comirnaty might be a little clunky and maybe there’s some initial confusion about the right pronunciation, but who would have preferred RnaxCovi instead? As for Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, maybe we still have time to dissuade them from naming their vaccine Jcovden, Jcovsen, or Jcovav. Comirnaty may not inspire immediate adoration, but Jc at the beginning of a word would surely unleash new levels of social media scorn.

In the end, no matter how clever or awkward Comirnaty may be, we may just end up calling it “the Pfizer vaccine” forever. Netflix wanted us to call its DVD service Qwikster and Disney apparently expected us to call Baby Yoda Grogu, but just because a company introduces a new name doesn’t mean people will use it. Especially when, no matter how much we appreciate it, it still does feel a little like peanut butter in your mouth.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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