A Neologism for the Ages: Aspirin

Neologisms are nothing new.  Today’s flurry of offbeat and oddball coinages can obscure the fact that the practice of coining a new name is an old and proud tradition in commerce.

Consider the name of what is perhaps the best-known medicine on earth:  Aspirin.

The active ingredient in aspirin, acetyl-salicylic acid, is a synthetic derivative of a compound called salicin, which occurs naturally in plants such as the willow tree.  Extracts of willow were traditionally used in folk medicine.  The Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that willow leaves and bark relieved pain and fever.  (“Chew on the bark of two willow trees, and call me in the morning.”)

Bayer aspirinIn the 1890s, chemists at the Bayer drug firm decided to commercialize the product and came up with the brand name Aspirin by taking:

  • “a” from acetyl;
  • “spir” from the Latin spiraea ulmaria, the description of the willow plant; and
  • “-in,” a popular suffix for medications.

Business scholars say the custom of giving commercial names to medicinal products actually began in Germany, when pharmaceutical firms first discovered medical uses for easily-made chemicals.  German law required prescriptions to be filled exactly as written.  So to discourage competition, the firms would market the substance under a short trademarked name – easier for the doctor to remember than a long chemical compound name.

Aspirin was first sold as a powder, then in 1915 as a tablet.  Bayer owned the Aspirin trademark, but after World War I, the company was forced to give up the trademark as part of war reparations in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

Which is why this neologism for the ages is now just lower-case “aspirin,” an everyday word in the dictionary.

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