Medical Mispronunciations

How do you pronounce Osphena, Tafinlar, Procysbi, Sitavig, Breo Ellipta and Tecfidera?

One of the challenging aspects of a career in medicine is that every week you have to learn new nonsense words that have been invented to describe the latest products. 2013 has already brought us Osphena, Tafinlar, Procysbi, Sitavig, Breo Ellipta and Tecfidera, among many other tongue twisters. I have never been able to figure out how the companies that make these products get us all to pronounce them the same way so quickly. Marketing I suppose.

With older drugs, there is no one fighting for branding, so you can pretty much please yourself pronunciation-wise. One of my favorite examples is a constituent of the poppy plant: Thebaine. NFL Legend Roger Staubach asked “How do you spell relief?“. I ask “How do you say Thebaine?”. Some people say THE-BANE (of my existence?), others make it three syllables THEE-BAYE-IN (of the wolves?) or THE-BAY-INN (all rooms with an ocean view?).

Personally, I never pronounce the name of any drug first in a meeting because I am afraid how people will react if I get it wrong.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Medical Mispronunciations”

  1. I ask “How do you say Thebaine?”.

    I’d pronounce the initial th- unvoiced as in “thorn” or “thick,” rather than voiced as in “themselves” or “thereabout.”

    In English, an initial th- is voiced only in closed-class words, that is pronouns, the definite article, and determinative adjectives. A “closed class” is a part of speech to which no new members can be added, such as articles and pronouns. Examples are this, that, they, thee, there, therefore, thereabout, the, and the like. Only a small number of these words exist, and if I see a new word that starts with th-, I know immediately how to pronounced the initial digraph. The preposition “through” belongs to a closed class, but it’s an exception along with its compounds.

    “Thou” is pronounced differently depending on how it’s used:

    >Thou shalt not kill.


    >He made over a hundred thou last year.

    A final -th is pronounced unvoiced as in “teeth” or “myth.” An exception is “smooth.”

    In a medial position, the digraph is pronounced voiced if it’s followed immediately by an -e: mother, father, brother, are voiced but author and ichthyologist are unvoiced. The final -th in south is unvoiced, but when we add a suffix to make southern it becomes voiced.

    1. I should have said that in a medial position it’s pronounced voiced if the digraph is immediately preceded by a vowel and followed by an -e or -er. which is why it’s unvoiced in panther.

      As far as I know, the rule that open-class words that start with th- are pronounced as “thorn” and “thick” has no exceptions.

      1. It would have been much easier if that incompetent Caxton had insisted on his Flemish typefounders supplying him with letters for good old English eth and thorn. However, noþing stops us from reviving ðem. It´s þebaine, wheðer the second diphþong is [eɪ̯] or [æɪ̯].

  2. Thebaine is pretty straightforward to pronounce. It’s: “6,7,8,14-tetradehydro-4,5a-epoxy-3,6-dimethoxy-17-methylmorphinan” 8-P

    However since Wikipedia also informs us it’s based on the name of the ancient Egyptian city Thebes, the correct pronunciation is almost certainly THEEB-ANE with the soft TH like ‘THREE’, and because the ‘aine’ part is from the same root as ‘cocaine’ or ‘novocaine’.

    The rest are hard: they are trade names and I think that the drug companies use an AI model based on a drunken Russian trying to pronounce Sanskrit words as the basis for their name generators.

    They’re all more appropriately pronounced “I hope we make money with this one”

  3. It is my understanding that a great deal if money and research is expended on naming new pharmaceuticals. Apparently it isn’t that easy to come up with a new name that’s not similar in some way to another word or product name somewhere in the world. But I swear I’ll crack if I hear the Xeljanz commercial one more time. For some reason that “word” makes me irrationally angry. And I’m just not an angry guy. Don’t people with rheumatoid arthritis have enough problems? Xeljanz. Really?

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