Medicinal meter

For some years, I’ve been taking a diuretic with a long name that lots of people, including some medical personnel, have trouble pronouncing, though I don’t. What works for me is that the name is in trochaic tetrameter (with a final short foot):

hydrochlorothiazide: HY dro CHLo ro THI a ZIDE

Trochaic tetrameter is the meter of most English folk verse (folk songs, nursery rhymes, etc.), many advertising slogans, sayings, and more. People didn’t frame these with the trochaic tetrameter pattern in mind; they chose expressions according to what “sounded good” to them — that is, according to an implicit or unconscious aesthetic.

Hydrochlorothiazide is one step beyond this: there’s no choice, even unconscious. Instead, the name encodes significant parts of the drug’s chemical composition, and a great many chemical components have trochaic names. English favors trochees.

The diuretic’s name has four feet, but three parts from a semantic point of view. From Wikipedia on thiazides:

Thiazide is a type of molecule and a class of diuretics often used to treat hypertension (high blood pressure) and edema (such as that caused by heart, liver, or kidney disease).

The thiazides and thiazide-like diuretics reduce the risk of death, stroke, heart attack and heart failure due to hypertension. In most countries, the thiazides are the cheapest antihypertensive drugs available.

Hydrochlorothiazide is indeed cheap — about 4.5 cents a day for me.

Compare this name with another chemical name, also trochaic tetrameter (with short initial and final feet): trinitrotoluene, better known as TNT. Boom.

9 Responses to “Medicinal meter”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Here’s something that I’m genuinely curious about. Traditionally tetrameter is used for folk poetry, whether trochaic tetrameter (as in, say, Humpty Dumpty) or iambic tetrameter (as in, say, A Visit from St. Nicholas). It’s also notable for its use in more serious poetry (say, The Destruction of Sennacherib or The Raven – nominally octameter, but that’s just tetrameter twice).

    Why, then, does iambic pentameter have such a determined foothold in serious poetry and poetical analysis?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Over the decades in which I’ve worked mostly with trochaic material (in various sorts of folk forms), I’ve wondered this myself. The brief, but somewhat unsatisfactory, answer is that it’s largely due to Shakespeare. That just drives the question back to why WS made the choices he did. I believe the conventional answer there is that stretches of iambs sound more relaxed and “speech-like” than stretches of trochees. But then …

    • Robert Coren Says:

      A Visit From St. Nicholas is anapestic, not iambic, isn’t it?

      • John Baker Says:

        ‘Twas the NIGHT be fore CHRIST mas and ALL through the HOUSE
        Not a CREA ture was STIR ring not E ven a MOUSE . . . .

        Okay, you got me. Those are anapests. Still tetrameter, not pentameter, though.

        I was thinking of using Jack and Jill, but I couldn’t decide how to characterize it:

        JACK and JILL went UP the HILL
        To FETCH a PAIL of WA ter.
        JACK fell DOWN and BROKE his CROWN
        And JILL came TUM bling AF ter.

        Trochaic quadrimeter, with a final short foot, followed by iambic trimeter with a final long foot? Or just say it’s two lines of trochaic septameter? The next stanza seems more iambic:

        Then UP Jack GOT and OFF he TROT
        As FAST as HE could CA per
        To OLD Dame DOB who FIXED his KNOB
        With VIN eg ar AND brown PA per.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        ?? John Baker *said* these were anapests.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        John Baker:

        I was thinking of using Jack and Jill, but I couldn’t decide how to characterize it:

        JACK and JILL went UP the HILL
        To FETCH a PAIL of WA ter.
        JACK fell DOWN and BROKE his CROWN
        And JILL came TUM bling AF ter.

        Trochaic quadrimeter, with a final short foot, followed by iambic trimeter with a final long foot? Or just say it’s two lines of trochaic septameter? The next stanza seems more iambic:

        Then UP Jack GOT and OFF he TROT
        As FAST as HE could CA per
        To OLD Dame DOB who FIXED his KNOB
        With VIN eg ar AND brown PA per.

        The issue has to do with the line-final words WATER, AFTER, CAPER, PAPER. If you read them as in connected speech, they’re odd, because these final words look trochaic (in an apparently trimeter line). But now think of them as chanted or sung, in a tetrameter line. Then the final syllables will be metrically accented, even though unaccented in connected speech.

        Aha! Just iambic tetrameter, with some short final feet.

      • John Baker Says:

        What about the first and third lines? Are they trochaic?

      • Robert Coren Says:

        He said “iambic tetrameter” in his first comment.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    To John Baker, on the 1st and 3rd lines: trochaic? I think so, with a short initial foot. Compare lines 5 and 7.

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