Feeling a Bit Iffy About 'Abilify'

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A linguist thinks the name of an antipsychotic drug is about to enter the popular lexicon in the style of “Xerox” and “Kleenex”. Eric Gingras/Wikimedia Commons

So thorough has been pop culture's assault on the English language that even the high priests of diction have ceded the inner sanctum. Among the words recently ushered into the august Oxford English Dictionary (or at least its online counterpart) are YOLO and amazeballs. Yes, it is still the language of Shakespeare. But it is also the language of side boob.

One branch of this pop-culture lexical invasion is the brand name that comes to encapsulate a whole class of object: Xerox for all copiers being probably the most prevalent example of such corporatist synecdoche.

And then there is Abilify, which is a drug that helps thousands but also a word that, to some, illustrates the uncomfortable nexus of language and marketing.

Abilify is an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as other conditions (it is sometimes given for autism, for example). Its generic name is Aripiprazole; its chemical structure is 7-[4-[4-(2,3-dichlorophenyl)-1piperazinyl]butoxy]-3,4-dihydrocarbostyril.

This does not make Abilify a seeming candidate for popular usage on the order of amazeballs.

And yet.… A warning arrived in my in-box yesterday morning via The Vocabula Review, a daily language newsletter compiled by Robert Hartwell Fiske, who has authored books like Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English and To The Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing.

Fiske is a sort of fire-watcher of suspect usage: The most amusing aspect of his daily newsletter (which he says has 5,000 subscribers) is the "disagreeable English" screed that rails against the Visigoths who know not, say, the difference between literally and figuratively, who use parameter outside of trigonometry class, who mistake affect for effect. Monday's culprit was, as you might have guessed, "Abilify."

According to Fiske, "Abilify sounds as though it might be a verb meaning to make able… Abilify might one day mean to be powerfully effective or to make able, and the more people use it as such, the more likely, these advertisers (and the linguistic hirelings who work for them) hope, the brand-name drug for combating bipolar disorder and depression will be known and bought."

Suspicion over the marketing of antidepressants and antipsychotics is not new. Last year, Jezebel writer Lindy West accused the makers of such drugs—including Abilify—of running ads that specifically targeted women, making mental illness seem like a particularly female affliction. West wrote, "Depression: It's like when Carol is on the rag, only all the time!" Though she discusses only the marketing imagery associated with Abilify (as well as Cymbalta, Wellbutrin and others), its name fits into her conception, with Abilify as an empowering agent, giving women the ability to be full women again.

Fiske (who also railed against "Abilify" in his book on poor usage) believes this to be a "deliberate corporate strategy to (1) make the drug sound effective, indeed, active and powerful, and, more important, (2) encourage people to use the brand name as a common verb." He gives the example of both Xerox and Kleenex.

He apparently believes that the word's proximity to ability and its muscular, active -ify suffix will cause people to readily conflate it with, you know, an actual word: "Abilify sounds like something George W. Bush would say, as in, 'We need to abilify our troops to fight the terrorists'; 'We need to abilify those kids so they become educationable.'"

Let the record show that for all his abuses of the English language, George W. Bush said neither of these things. Let the record also show that there does not appear to be a mass epidemic of ordinary people using abilify in the way that Fiske fears.

Fiske told me that he does not have direct evidence—say, a nefarious memorandum from Bristol-Myers Squibb or Otsuka America, which make Abilify—suggesting a clandestine strategy to invade the lexicon. The fruits of such a strategy are hard to discern: even though the name is catchy, it's hard to imagine psychopharmacologists swayed (or confused) by a clever name. Nor are people in mental distress likely to ask for Abilify the way a diner might ask for "a Coke" without much caring if she gets a Pepsi instead. (Otsuka representatives declined to comment for this story.)

"There's no danger of abilify becoming a conventionally accepted verb any time soon," says Wall Street Journal "Word on the Street" columnist Ben Zimmer. "All this demonstrates is that those in the naming and branding industry have a penchant for adding the -ify suffix to create new concoctions." Zimmer notes that fellow linguist Christopher Johnson has compiled a Pinterest board of "ify" brands, which include Rentify, Wingify and Attendify, not to mention the popular music-streaming service known as Spotify.

None of this is likely to sway the curmudgeonly Fiske. "Using the noun Abilify as a verb may meet with more resistance" than Band-Aid and Kleenex, he told me. "But probably not."

Cray, right?