Prescription Drugs—Why Do We Spell it Rx?

Rx. Most of us know that’s the symbol representing prescriptions and prescription drugs.

But why? Have you ever wondered exactly what the history of the Rx symbol is?

RX SymbolThe “r” in drugs is followed by a “u,” not an “x.” And there’s no “x” following either “r” in prescription.  So why do we call prescription drugs Rx?

Have we just forgotten how to spell?

It’s not quite that simple. Neither is the explanation for the Rx symbol. But there are two theories that more people seem to buy than any others—and here they are.

  1. Rx refers to an ancient god.

One version of this theory makes reference to an ancient Egyptian god named Horus, who had a very difficult time when it came to his eyes. One of poor Horus’s eyes was stolen, and his other eye got cut regularly by another god named Thoth. But it wasn’t all bad for Horus because his remaining eye would be restored every month. As a result, Horus’s eye came to represent healing—and, according to some accounts, the ancient symbol used to represent the eye had much in common with the letter “R” that we use today.

A more popular version of the ancient god theory refers to the Roman god, Jupiter. As reports, “another explanation for the origin of Rx is that it was derived from the astrological sign for Jupiter which was once placed on prescriptions to invoke that god’s blessing on the drug to help the patient recover.”

Jupiter was considered a patron of medicine, and the most important deity in ancient Roman times preceding the adoption of Christianity, so presumably having his blessing on any drug would be viewed as a good step toward making the drug more effective.

Some commentators point out that the written character representing Jupiter looked a lot like a modern day “R” with a slanted slash across the letter’s “leg.” This would be roughly equivalent to a capital “R” and a lower case “x” being written as a single unit, with the “x” attached to the leg of the “R.” Interestingly, this is how the modern Rx symbol used to be written.

As Askville explains, most keyboards do not have a single-unit “Rx” key, “so we just write it out as Rx.” But people who support the Rx symbol’s Jupiter theory often point out that “Rx” written out with two individual letters is not the correct form of the symbol representing prescriptions and prescription drugs. The form of “Rx” that they insist is correct is the form that corresponds with the symbol representing the Roman king of deities, Jupiter.

Another view of the Jupiter theory focuses on Jupiter the planet, and not the god. Some ancients seemed to view the largest planet in our solar system as a place representing good luck, which you certainly can’t get enough of when it comes to matters of health and the effectiveness of drugs.

Though it is not the most commonly believed theory as to the origin of the Rx symbol, the Jupiter theory is still a popular one. Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Biotechnical Information – not known for making connections between modern medicine and ancient myths—acknowledges in an abstract on its website that one theory on the Rx symbol’s origin “appears to represent the astronomical sign of the planet Jupiter.” The abstract goes on to say, however, “There is no evidence … to support this suggestion.”

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  1. Rx is a simple Latin abbreviation for “recipe.”

Most of the evidence seems to support this view. That slanted slash through the leg of the “R” in the original, single-unit version of the Rx symbol didn’t only refer to Jupiter. That same slash through the “R” could also indicate that a full word was abbreviated. In the case of the single-unit Rx, the abbreviation was for the word “recipe.”

English words, as we know, are derived from many languages, and “recipe” comes from Latin. Multiple sources indicate “recipe” is essentially the Latin word for “take.” As Askville explains, “That’s how doctors used to communicate prescriptions to pharmacists…, when a prescription had to be made rather than just counting out pills. That ‘take’ is an instruction to the pharmacist, as in, ‘Take some willow bark and boil it up, and have the patient drink it.’”

Some commentators suggest the “recipe” reference makes perfect sense since druggists typically mix ingredients to make medicines much as chefs mix ingredients to make gourmet delights.

There you have it … two popular theories to explain where that Rx symbol came from. You’re free to support whichever one you choose … or to come up with your own theory to explain how Rx came to mean prescriptions and prescription drugs.

There may be some disagreement on theories, but it’s hard not to agree on the importance of a good Medicare Part D prescription drug plan (PDP) to help keep Rx costs within your budget. Contact MedicareMall for information about prescription drug plans designed to save you a lot of money.

Do you have another theory to explain the origin of the Rx symbol? If so, leave a comment!

© 2013


2 thoughts on “Prescription Drugs—Why Do We Spell it Rx?

  1. The symbol has stayed, meaning prescription and sometimes pharmacy. While the symbol does not have the same meaning today, it can have the same meaning for some, though it it doubtful that anybody is praying to the Roman god Jupiter for a cure.

  2. Rx symbolizes prayer to the god of medicine-Jupiter in Latin it means “recipe-take thou”,i.e., ‘take it in the name of god” It is always written in upper left corner of prescription page. The National Drug store chain:”Rexall”originated in 1904 by Louis K. Liggett. The name was derived from the words ‘Rx to all’ or “pharmacy care to all’ -T.P.

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