October 06, 2015 13:54 UTC

Words and Their Stories

Rx: Why It Means "Take Your Medicine"

A pharmacist works in the Ramallah Hospital.
A pharmacist works in the Ramallah Hospital.


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Now, the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

Every week at this time, the Voice of America tells about popular words and expressions used in the United States. Some of these words and expressions are old. Some are new. Together, they form the living speech of the American people.
Our story today is very old. It goes back about 5,000 years. It is about a sign that is used to represent some words.

We see this sign on drug stores and whenever we visit a doctor to get an order for medicine. It also appears on bottles of pills and other medicines.

The sign is formed by a line across the right foot of the letter “R.” It represents the word “prescription.” It has come to mean “take this medicine.”

The sign has its beginnings 5,000 years ago in Egypt. At that time, people prayed to Horus, the god of the Sun. It was said that when Horus was a child, he was attacked by Seth, the demon of evil.

The evil Seth put out the eye of the young Horus. The mother of Horus called for help. Her cry was answered by Thoth, the god of learning and magic. Thoth, with his wisdom and special powers, healed the eye of Horus. And the child was able to see again.

The ancient Egyptians used a drawing of the eye of Horus as a magic sign to protect themselves from disease, suffering and evil. They cut this sign in the stones they used for buildings. And it was painted on the papyrus rolls used for writing about medicine and doctors.

For thousands of years, the eye of Horus remained as a sign of the god’s help to the suffering and sick.

Long after the fall of the ancient Egyptian civilization, doctors and alchemists in Europe continued the custom of showing a sign of the gods’ help and protection. But over the years, the sign changed from the eye of Horus to the sign for Jupiter, the chief god of the Romans. Jupiter’s sign looked much like the printed number “four.”
That sign changed, also. Today, it is the easily-recognized capital “R” with a line across its foot.

The sign no longer offers heavenly assistance to the sick. It now means “take this medicine.”

This VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrator was Maurice Joyce. I’m Warren Sheer.

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Comment Sorting
by: Andy Le from: Vietnam
06/28/2013 5:44 AM
Its great ! i'm first time to learn american english via your aricle. Thank you for good voice.

by: Francisco from: Chile
06/27/2013 12:12 AM
I hadn´t heard about this before, very interesting article.

by: Wilibald from: Czech republic
06/26/2013 10:12 PM
What does the "R" look like? I don't know.

by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
06/26/2013 4:27 AM
Thank you for an intersting story about meanings of Rx often seen on drug stores' notices. Actually figure 4 may happen to look like letter R. But I would like to confirm at first if Jupetter's sign is similar to figure 4.

By the way, I have been understanding that Rx came from Recipe and x on the right foot of R means abbreviation. Is it likely "Recipe" came from "4ecipe" ???

by: Wonchul Lee from: South Korea
06/26/2013 3:02 AM
With various articles I am very often Learning English of voa. Nevertheless I am still f-a-r away from the land of communicating in English. Appreciate your program

In Response

by: thuthuy from: vietnam
06/27/2013 2:37 PM
learing English to improve your self and learn knowldge on the world

by: Ronaldo from: Brasilia, Brazil
06/23/2013 8:25 PM
Excelent report !! I learner about the letter R in prescrition

by: Olufemi Bamiduro from: Ibadan, Nigeria
06/23/2013 1:24 PM
This is interesting. I had wondered for years what on earth the Rx symbol could ever mean, but now I know.
It will interest you that I started listening to VOA since my High School teacher recommended VOA and BBC. President Carter was to visit Nigeria and we had a history class Mansa Kankan Musa of Mali, the teacher likened Musa's visit to Mecca to the upcoming one by Pres. Carter, the teacher asked if we knew but we simply smiled to ourselves. VOA made be what I am today. Thanks.

In Response

by: Zeus Jeong from: Korea & Peru
06/26/2013 2:53 PM
Wow~ it's wonderful story about you.
Thanks for hearing from you.

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