Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Answer to age-old question is good medicine

I’m sure many people wonder, as I’ve wondered, why we so often see the symbol associated with prescriptions and pharmacies. What does this symbol mean, and where did it originate?

A prescription, as we all know, refers to a doctor’s instruction, usually in writing, for the composition and use of a medicine. This, in itself, provides a very important clue: the answer is not so astounding when one considers the etymology not of the word prescription, but, rather, of the word recipe, derived from the post-classical Latin recipe, denoting a formula for the composition or use of a medicine.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following as the medical definition of recipe.

A formula for the composition or use of a medicine, a prescription; a medicine prepared according to such a formula; a remedy.

Interpreted as an initialism, the symbol signals an instruction, usually “take”. A quotation from the New Hampshire Journal of Medicine (1855) supports this: “The following prescription was most useful. Valerian […]” Later, the symbol became synonymous with medical prescriptions, as illustrated in a 1911 advertisement in the October 20, 1911, edition of the Syracuse Herald. The ad included the caveat “ prescription shoes excepted.” A later quotation, from the Nebraska State Journal (5:1) in 1936 indicates that “results will be recorded in an (prescription) book”.

Oh, and those of you thinking I went to great pains to find this answer need to relax: chill pill. It is, as I said, something I’ve been aching to find out for a long time, too.


Those interested in learning more can refer to The Story of English, a book by Robert MacNeil, Robert McCrum and William Cran. Twice revised since its original printing in 1986, the book details the development of the English language. Episodes of the nine-part, Emmy-award winning television series by the same name can be seen on YouTube.


  1. Very interesting! I had often wondered about this, actually. Enlightening as always!

    1. Thanks for the feedback. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)