Submitted by Dyske on December 1, 2002


If over-the-counter drugs mean drugs that you can buy off the shelf, then why is it called over the counter? Prescription drugs are the ones that you purchase over the counter literally. It should be “off-the-shelf” not over-the-counter. Don’t you think?


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I'm only guessing here but it might be from being able to get these drugs by just handing your money over the counter as opposed to having to see a doctor and get a prescription.

'off the shelf' actually conveys the meaning that a product has not been tailored to a specific individual or situation. For example you can by an 'off the shelf' accountancy package like MYOB (Make Your Own Business) or you can pay a company to write and develop a package unique to your needs that can't just be purchased from a retail shop. Another example would be a 'off the shelf' suit as opposed to a tailored one.

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Actually, although "Over-the-Counter" refers to drugs that can be bought without any permit or prescription, originally, all of these drugs were still behind a counter, where you asked a pharmacist, and he would simply give it to you "over-the-counter". This way, the pharmacist could advise you on usage, give suggestions, and make sure you don't create a dangerous combination by mixing two drugs incorrectly. However, as pharmacists became more valuble commodites, and we moved into a more self-service world, the Over-The-Counter drugs were moved out onto the shelves, but the name stuck.

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A further distinction is also made between "Over-the-counter" (OTC) drugs and "behind the counter" drugs - behind the counter drugs being drugs that the pharmacist can sell at his discretion, but can not display or advertise.

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As someone mentioned earlier, back in the day. all non-prescription medications were kept behind the counter. Those that were legally sold to all askers were handed "over-the-counter." Those which were more illicit were handed "under-the-counter," which was akin to "under-the-table"

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This is an example of where the language is lagging behind the mercantile world

I am a native speaker of American, which is not at all the same as a native speaker of English, British or any of those other things like Australian.

When I was a child in the 1950s, there were no large chain pharmacies or drug stores, such as RiteAid. The drug store was owned by a licensed pharmacist. There were some national brands of remedies (such as Exedrin). These were kept behind the pharmacist's counter, and you asked for them, as opposed to the other goods such as toothpaste which were on the shelf.

Drug language can get to be confusing. There are "controlled substances" (such as morphine which has both a legitimate medicinal use and a recreation, or illegitimate use). There are "proprietary drugs" and "generic drugs". Proprietary means a specific formulation; generic means the same drug without the brand name, and possibly some other features that make it work better.

I wouldn't use "off the shelf" to talk about drugs; I would use it to talk about a generic solution to a specific problem.

And contrary to what Jay Frankenberger thought, the role of the pharmacist in health care has plummetted in esteem and status.

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