Using “Pharma Bro” and Other Pop-Culture Epithets

By Mark Nichol

Not long after Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli stepped out of the media spotlight, the notoriously greedy former pharmaceutical-company executive briefly popped back onto the popular-culture radar to helpfully illustrate how epithets have evolved (or devolved, as some may judge).

Shkreli, at the time the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, became for a time the most hated man in the United States, based on the antipathy he inspired on social media for price gouging: He jacked up the price of a drug used to kill parasites in AIDS and cancer patients to more than fifty times its original price of about $13.50 per pill. Schadenfreude struck when he was arrested for securities fraud, and he was quickly dubbed “Pharma Bro” for his cocky frat-boy attitude.

Recently, during an interview, he essentially told the world, “Don’t call me Pharma Bro” (the actual quote was the bro-ish assertion “I’m not a ‘pharma bro,’ right?”), saying that the photograph he posted on Twitter showing him mimicking a rapper’s posturing, which prompted the coinage, was meant as a joke, but the epithet will likely forever be attached to him.

What is an epithet, anyway? A more detailed discussion of epithets is provided in this post, but briefly, an epithet is a sobriquet, or nickname, and such usage is nothing new in popular media—or in writing in general. A few years ago, we were subjected to the hideous sight of Tan Mom, a woman who routinely spent so much time in a tanning salon that her skin turned a grotesque leathery brown. Before that there was Octomom, who, though she already had six children conceived through in vitro fertilization, gave birth to octuplets thanks to the same procedure.

In the world of entertainment, a trend that flourished some years ago but has all but disappeared is to create an epithet by combining the names of two celebrities in a romantic relationship, producing such portmanteau monikers as Brangelina (for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie); the latest such appellation, Kimye, refers to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Before that, other famous people were dubbed, for example, Elvis “the King” Presley, Joe “the Yankee Clipper” DiMaggio, and John “the Great Profile” Barrymore. More recent epithets have included Kung Fu Panda (or simply Panda) for Major League Baseball player Pablo Sandoval.

But as the ubiquity of social media makes it easy for anyone to become a subject of notoriety, if only for the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, it’s likely that we will become accustomed to designations like Pharma Bro, Tan Mom, and Octomom, whether those who bear the labels like them or not.

Should you, however, use such nomenclature in your professional writing? Certainly, if such usage is pertinent, whether you’re referring to one of these temporary celebrities directly or just alluding to them (perhaps describing an unfortunate sunbather who went overtime in UV exposure as “Tan Mom”).

But consider your audience, as well as chronology, when name-dropping someone who has earned a derisive epithet. Pharma Bro has been in the news repeatedly for the past couple of months, so readers are likely to know who you’re talking about. But in an informational article, you might opt for a gloss, or a brief description; I provided an extensive explanation above, but it might suffice to refer to “Pharma Bro, the notorious former pharmaceutical executive arrested for price-gouging AIDS and cancer patients.” If you’re making a humorous allusion, however, as in the “Tan Mom” example in the previous paragraph, you’ll sink the joke if you weigh it down with an explanation. Either trust your readers to get the reference, or omit it as a distraction to your point.

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