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June 23rd, 2004

Statin / cachet vs. cache

by Barbara Wallraff

Benedict K. Zobrist, of Lake Lotawana, Mo., writes: “I am writing on behalf of a number of fellow patients in a prominent Kansas City hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program. We seek to learn the origin of the word ‘statin,’ used to describe a category of lipid-lowering drugs. My fellow patients and I have written to the pharmaceutical companies Merck, Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, none of which could provide any information. Please help.”

Dear Benedict: Why am I not surprised that your correspondents at the pharmaceutical companies don’t seem to know Latin and Greek? “Stat” comes from the Latin participle “status,” meaning “stopped; halted,” and before that from the Greek verb “statos,” “to stop.” At least, that’s roughly what the discoverers of somatostatin — a hormone-inhibiting chemical compound that the body secretes — explained in the 1973 paper that announced their findings. “Somatostatin” was one of the earliest names to include “statin.” Though somatostatin is not a member of the class of drugs you’re asking about (drugs intended to stop the liver from producing excessive amounts of cholesterol), it was among the first substances to be given such a name.

A still earlier discovery was the antibiotic named “nystatin,” which also halts things — in this case, fungal infections. But, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this name comes from an acronym, “nystat,” for “New York state,” where the researchers Rachel Fuller Brown and Elizabeth Lee Hazen developed the drug in the 1950s.

Drug names often make some sense — but just some. For instance, “Lipitor,” a trademarked name for atorvastatin, lowers LIPid levels and is an inhibITOR of, well, 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A reductase, if you must know. But few coined names for drugs (as opposed to the chemical formulas for them) are literal-minded and exact. Thinking of statins as drugs that stop or at least reduce the production of excess cholesterol makes about as much sense as we’re likely to get out of the term.

Sam Culotta, of Covina, Calif., writes: “Has anyone else noticed that politicians often use the word ‘cachet’ to describe hidden stores of weapons? According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the term for hidden stores of anything is ‘cache.’ Is this a case of ‘monkey hear, monkey say,’ or is my dictionary leading me astray?”

Dear Sam: Uh-oh — it’s not just politicians but journalists, too. For instance, in March this appeared on the Associated Press state and local wire: “glimpses of Bradley fighting vehicles, palace ruins, confiscated weapons cachets.” “Cache” means what you say it does and would have been the right word here. “Cachet” means something like “stamp of approval” or “prestige”; it originally referred to the seal on an official letter sent by the French king.

The reason people get it wrong, I think, is that “cache” is correctly pronounced just like “cash.” More than one hidden store of something is pronounced the way “cashes” would be if anyone ever used “cash” in the plural. Both “cache” and “cachet” come to us from the same French verb: “cacher.” But only “cachet” is pronounced “ca-shay” — the way those of us who don’t speak French might imagine that “cache” should be.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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