The Nation's Pulse

Syllabubs

What's with all the nonce names concocted by our modern commercial system?

By 9.5.06

Send to Kindle

Last year, we enrolled our older son in a math tutoring program called Kumon (CUE-mon). It was taught by a no-nonsense Indian woman named Shoba Donte.

"Oh, great," I said to my wife. "Three more sets of nonsense syllables to learn."

I was exaggerating. Mrs. Dante pronounces her last name the same way as the famous Italian epic poet. But there is a lot of that nonsense syllabulling going on these days.

You've heard of the drug Epo, the blood booster given to chemo and dialysis patients, and sometimes implicated in sports doping scandals. Other drugs can be prescribed to do the same thing. My docs decided to give me one called Aranesp.

Since I took Aranesp only every couple of weeks, and since I ordered it only every quarter or so, I could never remember it.

"Ataran," I'd venture when some medical type asked me for my meds. "Anavap."

No.

I UNDERSTAND THAT WHOLE COMPANIES and technologies are devoted to naming things nowadays, with computers generating the possibilities, and then final nomenclature getting picked by a marketing committee. The first biggies we saw like that were Xerox and Exxon. Double X's, apparently, which occur naturally only in Finnish, tend to assure that a marketing computer won't inadvertently say something dirty in a foreign language.

Syllabubbing ensures that we must all pay very strict attention to those TV commercials for new medications, as in, "There will be a test later." You find out about some terrific new drug that will shrink the prostate and make urination easier and less painful in old age. Yes, thinks you, I will ask my doctor about that one, just the way they want me to. It's called...it's called...Apaloop. Dang!

It's Allovert. I think.

THE GOOD AND OBVIOUS SYLLABUBS have all been taken, unfortunately. You know the ones. Like Sominex, the over-the-counter sleep aid. Or Librium, the suggestively named tranq. Names like that employ some well-known Latin or Greek root to suggest the effect the drug achieves.

Though, credit today's telephone companies, they have managed to make signal sense of their syllabubs: Nextel, Novatel, Verizon.

Sometimes the syllables stick, but the meaning doesn't. I heard the commercial for "the little purple pill," Nexium, for weeks, without ever figuring out what it was for (acid reflux disease).

And, as I say, nowadays, the syllables themselves give you no clue. Despite their reputation for daring, ad agencies and marketing gurus would never name a new diet pill Jump Street. They would never call a menopause mood enhancer something like Groovalot.

That might actually suggest that they work.

NONSENSE SYLLABLES HAVE THEIR BENEFITS in our modern commercial system. You can't sue a nonsense syllable for a false promise. If there were actually a menopause drug called Groovalot, some irate woman might well sue the maker on the basis that she didn't feel groovy at all, thank you. And she might win.

Unfortunately, syllabubs march on, into ever-more obscure oblivion. You no sooner learn the names of your prescription meds than one of them goes off patent, and next time you pick it up, the pharmacist is talking about a generic called "Alprazolam."

I've got that one. I can't even remember what the brand-name antecedent was called.

It's some kind of IQ test aimed at us oldsters, I sometimes think. When we get to the point where we can't recite three dozen nonsense syllables back when the docs ask us, "What meds are you taking?" they'll know it's time to put us away.

As if diminishing night vision weren't bad enough.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.