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I mean it in the sense of buying medicine, for example for common cold or other diseases.

When talking about buying medicine, which of these sentences is more correct or more commonly used:

  • "go to the drug store to buy drugs"
  • "go to the drug store to buy medicine"
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That entirely depends on which country you are in ... –  coleopterist Jul 29 '12 at 9:45
Really? I would be interested in that, please elaborate! –  janos Jul 29 '12 at 9:47
Here in the midwestern U.S., even though we call it a drug store, I think many folks are likely to say "to buy medication." The phrase "to buy drugs" is more often applied to illegal narcotics, but this is not hard and fast. –  J.R. Jul 29 '12 at 9:48
In the UK it's very unusual to speak of "buying drugs" when you mean medication, partly because most "non-recreational" drugs are gotten on prescription. Which is a fixed charge for those who pay it, so it doesn't feel like a normal "buying" transaction (more like a "tax" - especially if you notice that you're paying, but everyone else in the pharmacy gets them free on the State). –  FumbleFingers Jul 29 '12 at 15:03
@tchrist: I think most UK speakers don't habitually associate the word "drugs" with things you can buy OTC (which are more likely to be called *medication, treatments, etc.). Drugs are generally perceived to be more powerful - trashing your normal mental, killing off all pathogens, etc. –  FumbleFingers Jul 29 '12 at 16:18
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6 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

"Drug store" (or as it is commonly spelt, drugstore) is a term that is local to the US (and possibly to some parts of Canada). The rest of the "English-speaking" world mainly uses chemist or pharmacy, with medicals, medical store, and druggists (usually for stockists) seen in places in the Indian subcontinent as well as in Africa.

It is very rare to hear, "I'm going to the [store] to buy drugs". The words medication, medicine, and pills are far more common in this context. You might hear the word drug used in the context of "the latest drug in the market". But in day-to-day usage, it is mostly used to refer to narcotics.

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Yeah, we use "pharmacy" (the store) and "medicine", but in some cases we can buy drugs (e.g.: morphina, etc.) in the "pharmacy" store. +1 –  user19148 Jul 29 '12 at 10:14
@tor Yikes! Thanks for the clean-up. –  coleopterist Jul 29 '12 at 14:19
Pharmacy is a normal word in the US, too; it’s just more formal than drug store is. And nobody mentions that one normally gets prescriptions (or just scripts for short) filled there, so that’s what one picks up. –  tchrist Jul 29 '12 at 14:34
@Carlo_R.: When you say 'we', do you refer to Italians speaking Italian, Italians speaking English, or what? If the first two, that somehow doesn't seem relevant at all to ELU. –  Mitch Jul 29 '12 at 18:08
@Carlo_R.: sure, cultural exchange is great. But there is an expectation of an appropriate context which you did not specify. Your wording sounds like you're saying English people say 'buy drugs in the pharmacy store' and almost every part of your sentence is contrary to English usage. For correctness, you should specify who you think is saying what. –  Mitch Jul 29 '12 at 20:06
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Basic American Terminology

In the US, the most common word for somewhere that fills “Rx” orders from a physician is called a drugstore. However, pharmacy is also quite common, and indeed is the preferred term when specifying one place in a larger building, such as within a hospital or a supermarket.

If there is any difference between drugstore and pharmacy, it is that a pharmacy is used only for filling these Rx scripts, whereas a drugstore also sells items like first-aid supplies and especially assorted toiletries (toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and shaving cream, deodorant, etc).

If you enter a drugstore looking to get a doctor’s order filled, you look around for the pharmacy department inside, because the pharmacy is just one area of a drugstore. I have occasionally found drugstores that have no pharmacy. These are glorified convenience stores with snacks, drinks, toiletries, and cosmetics, but no controlled substances to dispense. Strange but true.

The term druggist is perhaps somewhat less common than pharmacist, but both are heard. The drugs industry as a whole is sometimes referred to as “big pharma”.

Written orders from a physician are called prescriptions, or particularly within the health-care industry itself, just plain scripts. Although a doctor’s orders may well include things other than medical drugs, that’s what one typically thinks of a prescription as being for.

So you’d “drive down to the drugstore to pick up some prescriptions”, or more briefly, to “get some scripts filled”. If you were already at a hospital, you might stop into its pharmacy down the hall on the way out to do the same. The colloquial meds is often heard instead of drugs.

Beyond being used to mean the piece of paper from your doctor, prescription is also used in America to mean the contents of the little bottles, tubes, and packets that one receives in exchange for that piece of paper. So one might unremarkably say, “I keep all my prescriptions in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, or in my dop kit when I travel.” That is specifically talking about the drugs (or meds) themselves, not about pieces of paper. If disambigation is needed, the other kind would be written prescriptions.

Other Considerations

The British term chemist is utterly unknown in America, and you would be mistaken for someone looking for some sort of chemical-supply shop if you were to ask for a chemist. The word apothecary is recognized and unambiguous, but virtually unused. It sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but would be more apt to draw a smile than confusion.

However, the word apothecary is still sometimes used, especially in trade names, by compounding pharmacies as a way of distinguishing themselves from run-of-the-mill retail pharmacies. A compounding pharmacy mixes up special-purpose custom concoctions under a physician’s orders, or to provide the same drug in some other form than a retail pharmacy provides.

Where you can still find them, old-fashioned drugstores, especially in small towns and villages of the American Midwest, besides having pharmaceuticals and toiletries, also offer a counter/bar with round stools lining it where they would up breakfasts and light lunches, and usually close in the afternoon. Typical fare would be (usually cold) sandwiches like chicken-, ham-, or tunafish-salad, served with a dill pickle spear and chips. In some places these are called dairy bars, although those can also occur outside drugstores.

The main reason to go to such old-fashioned drugstores is to partake of their soda fountain, from which they would dispense such marvelous confections as: ice-cream sundaes and banana splits; mixed-to-order chocolate, cherry, strawberry, or lime sodas (much better than bottled pop, which by definition is never made from scratch like a fresh soda must be); and ice-cream sodas like root-beer floats. These are now rare but not entirely unknown.

It is possible the the specific bigram buying drugs suffers from a social stigma which the word drugs itself used in other constructions does not. For example, among people where there is no chance of confusion, saying you need to pick up some drugs is by no means uncommon, particularly in the retired and elderly. It’s certainly the normal word used by my grandparents in their 90s, and often by my parents nearing 70. They know what they’re talking about between themselves, and drugs doesn’t carry the stigma it may for younger folk. Nonagenarians make for unlikely narco-traffickers in most societies.

With a younger crowd, who might be more apt have some acquaintance with recreational drug users, the term medicine is more common, and this is quite often colloquially shortened to just plain meds. Meds is a pretty common term: I’ve heard nurses use it, especially with children. You would not likely tell a child that it’s time to take his drugs; it would be more common to tell him that it’s time to take his meds, or if you’re being formal, then his medicine.

Medicine is also used for over-the-counter drugs, those available without a physician’s written order. Note that OTC drugs/meds are routinely sold at common retail outlets other than pharmacies alone, such as at supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations.

In American states where so-call “medical” marijuana has been legalized, a whole new set of euphemisms has cropped up. Businesses selling pot legally are known as dispensaries, as though they were an actual pharmacy, even though they are not. The pot they “dispense” (sell to you) is invariably referred to as medicine, especially in advertising. This is to distinguish their product from the black-market or garden-patch variety of the same substance, which is always called drugs, even though it is the very same thing, just acquired outside of prescribed legal channels.

Where I live, such establishments are more common than coffee shops, and one sees advertising for them everywhere. It’s really quite amusing. Patrons always talk about getting their meds, never about getting their drugs. High-school students, who aren’t allowed legal access to pot shops, always call it drugs itself, but it’s still the same thing.

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When doctors talk about "getting their meds", they are talking about drugs :) Nice answer. –  coleopterist Jul 29 '12 at 16:44
I'd think of the prescription as the actual piece of paper. So I wouldn't get a prescription at the chemist's, I'd get it from the doctor. Then I'd take the prescription to the chemist's to get the medicine. (I've never heard it called a script, but I'm lucky enough to have had little contact with the health industry.) –  TRiG Jul 29 '12 at 16:51
@TRiG Sure, a prescription is an actual piece of paper, but in America, it is also the thing contained in the little bottles or tubes with all the directions and warnings on them. So here it would be normal to say “I keep all my prescriptions in the medicine cabinet, or when I travel, in my dop kit.” Those are definitely not talking about pieces of paper, but about drugs. –  tchrist Jul 29 '12 at 16:55
@tchrist. Interesting. I honestly don't know over here, never having lived or travelled with anyone who's continuously on prescription drugs. (The only prescription drugs I've taken have been very short courses of antibiotics now and again.) –  TRiG Jul 29 '12 at 19:19
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The latter. 'Buying drugs' would imply illegal drugs, like heroin or cocaine.

The former could be used facetiously:

Colleague: What are you doing here? I thought you had the flu.

Me: Yeah well, I'm on a ton of drugs. I'll survive.

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As has been mentioned by others, the term drugstore is American English. See: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/drugstore?q=drugstore

In England and the rest of the UK, it is usually called a chemist. See: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/chemist_2 and http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/chemist

The word pharmacy is also used sometimes in the UK. See: http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/pharmacy and http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/pharmacy?q=pharmacy

The links to www.ldoceonline.com are particularly useful because they have an explanation of how to use these words.

Which term you use will depend on which style of English you are using. Use drug store if you are speaking American English. Use chemist if you are speaking British English.

When talking about buying medicine, which of these sentences is more correct or more commonly used:

"go to the drug store to buy drugs" "go to the drug store to buy medicine"

The second one, which would be "go to the drug store/chemist (depending on which English you use) to buy medicine". Talking about buying drugs, is normally a reference to buying illegal drugs (not medicines).

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Pharmacy is also very common in American English, possibly more common than drugstore (and certainly not much less). Chemist is unknown (in that sense). –  Charles Sep 28 '12 at 18:27
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As several have pointed out, in U.S. usage, buying drugs often has the connotation of buying illegal drugs. Probably most users would say to buy medicine, but both are heard.

Interestingly, when referring to the developers and sellers of such products, the companies are called either pharmaceutical companies or drug companies, but not medicine companies.

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Drugs: OED~ "A substance with intoxicating, stimulant, or narcotic effects used for cultural, recreational, or other non-medicinal purposes. In later use freq.: spec. a controlled substance used illegally and often habitually. Freq. in pl."

Medicine: OED"A substance or preparation used in the treatment of illness; a drug; esp. one taken by mouth. Also: such substances generally. Also in extended use."

Buying medicine is probably more accurate, as it is specific to healing, but buying drugs is not wrong as it can be healing or recreational.

Using the admittedly dubious Ngramit seems that 'medicine' has been in fairly constant use, while 'drugs' became popular in 1960s, which seems quite intuitive...

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