capsule, etc. + bubble/pearl tea + tapioca pearls

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 13 07:54:31 UTC 2011

I would like to get/introduce some clarification into dictionary entries
for terminology applied to medications and other substances distributed
in pill form. In particular, I am concerned about either definitions or
the scope of examples for capsule, tab, cap, caplet, dragee, pearl.
Tablet appears to be more up to date. Also see an addition "pearl"
comment at the end.

Am I the only one who thinks the following needs an update?

capsule, n. and adj.
A. n.
>  5. Med. A small envelope of gelatine to enclose a dose of nauseous
> medicine.
> 1875 H. C. Wood Treat. Therapeutics (1879) 503 When patients object to
> the taste, the drug may be given in gelatine capsules.

Note that this is the /only/ citation under this entry and there is no
other entry for medical/pharmaceutical use of "capsule". Admittedly,
"tablets" (n. 3.a.) and "capsules" have been substantially replaced in
US over-the-counter market with caps (n. 5 1942, 1962, 1963--but two of
the three in reference to narcotics), tabs (n.1 9., with an absurd
restriction "spec. one containing LSD or another illicit drug"), gelcaps
and geltabs (neither in OED), softgels and  liquigels (neither in OED),
and caplets (defined as "A proprietary name for a kind of coated
capsule"--actually not entirely correct, see below). But both "tablets"
and "capsules" are still in use, and they've certainly been in use well
past 1875.

I am puzzled by most of these definitions. Gelcaps, geltabs, and
liquigels may well be proprietary names for two types of pills--the
former two are gel coated versions of caps and tabs, and the last one is
a gelatinous capsule containing liquid rather than powder (of the type
that has been used for some time to package oil-soluble supplements,
such as vitamin E and fish oil, but has recently been adopted to other
pharmaceuticals--in fact, they are usually referred to as just "gels" or
"softgels"). As such, they might be too young or specialized for
dictionary existence (although all three are of obvious morphological
origin). If caplet was a proprietary name it has entered wider
circulation a long time ago and I am not sure it /ever/ meant "a kind of
coated capsule". For one, the definition of "capsule" cited above
clearly implies a gelatinous coating--and these actually include what
has now been termed "liquigels" (the difference is that "capsules" often
consist of a two-part enclosure containing powder inside, while the
liquid-content types actually are a one-piece bubble). "Caplets" are
nothing of the sort--they are identical to tablets in every way, except
shape, with or without coating. Wiki ignores the patented origin of
caplets and suggests a different reason for their existence (under

> Since their inception, capsules have been viewed by consumers as the
> most efficient method of taking medication. For this reason, producers
> of drugs such as OTC analgesics wanting to emphasize the strength of
> their product developed the "caplet" or "capsule-shaped tablet" in
> order to tie this positive association to more efficiently-produced
> tablet pills.

While tablets generally come round-shaped, for some time they've been
manufactured in a variety of polygonal and oblong shapes. A "caplet" is
a particularly long oblong tablet that resembles a capsule in shape (but
is solid like a tablet)--ostensibly to facilitate swallowing. Tabs and
caps are identical in every way to tablets and capsules, respectively.
Geltabs and gelcaps are tablets and caplets (not capsules!) enclosed in
a hard gelatinous shell (although some may be more egg-shaped or
spheroidal, but not spherical). The coating differs from caplets and
coated tablets in that it is thicker and more visible on geltabs and
gelcaps (regular coating is thin and transparent). There is certainly no
consistency, as I just checked my supplies and found a bottle of
glucosamine that contains "coated tablets" that look very much like
standard caplets, but substantially larger.

But also note the transition of "tabs" and "caps" from references to
narcotics or other controlled or illegal substances to essentially all
mainstream over-the-counter pharmaceuticals (and prescription ones as
well). There are two additional references used for medications in
/spherical/ form. In particular, the hard-shelled ones with the packed,
tablet-like substance enclosed in a flavored--usually sugar- or
polysaccharides-based--coating is the "dragee" and the spherical
equivalent of softgels/liquigels--usually much smaller--is "pearls".

Dragee is defined in OED in a rather standard way, although it's still
somewhat restricted compared to current usage (broader use than just
medications, but OED still sticks to "sweetmeats").

Pearls in this sense are defined at n.1 16.(b).

> (b) a small pill, esp. a small gelatinous capsule used to administer
> liquid medicine in pill form (cf. perle n.)

Oddly enough, both 16.(a) and (c) refer to hard granules, not soft ones.
The only other place where soft "pearls" can be found is pearl n.1 III 4.

> A small round drop or globule resembling a pearl in shape, colour, or
> lustre; esp. a dewdrop or a tear.

But I am specifically referring to the pharmaceutical usage for chemical
substances presented in the form of a spherical hard-gel coating
enclosing a soft-gel interior (active ingredient). Two of the
particularly common substances marketed in this way are one type of
cough medicine and several different kinds of breath fresheners
(although there are many prescription drugs marketed in this way as
well). Obviously, however, this usage goes way back--the citations under
16. come from 1872 and 1897.

Similar hard/soft "pearls" (a.k.a. "beads") can be found inside a number
of liquid soaps and soft drinks, with both of these meanings covered by
n.1 III 4. more so than by n.1 16. The same applies to the "caviar" or
"pearls" of molecular gastronomy (drops of liquid that become
gelatinized because of the reaction between two chemical substances
divided between the drops and solution into which they are immersed).
Although these are similar in most ways to the pharmaceutical pearls,
the latter comprise a distinct enough group perhaps to warrant a
separate subdefinition under 4. rather than under 16.

Another minor point--the connection to the drug culture is omnipresent.
Not only tabs and caps have had past association with a variety of
recreational pharmaceuticals, but also "geltabs" are LSD doses presented
in gelatin "tablets". And don't get me started on "pearls" in this context.

Finally, another addition to pearls--of the culinary variety. I am
talking about the tapioca pearls--of many different sizes and
consistencies. Perhaps I missed it, but I failed to find "tapioca
pearls" in the OED.

These come dry, about 4-mm in diameter (or smaller/larger depending on
intended usage), bagged or boxed--usually white. They also come "wet" or
pre-cooked--often canned or frozen, substantially larger and
plum-colored in their final form. "Tapioca pearls" is a standard
reference for the hard starch beads that most often end up in tapioca
pudding (where the "pearls" become gelatinous, although still
toothsome). A quite different kind of "tapioca pearls" (including most
of the pre-cooked ones) goes into the "pearl tea/coffee", a.k.a "bubble
tea", a.k.a. "boba", a.k.a. "bao-bao" (after a large chain of cafes and
also a possibly a variant of "boba"). The "pearls" are also commonly
referred to as "bubbles". But note Wiki description of "Bubble tea".

> Bubble teas usually contain small tapioca balls or pearls called
> "boba". Pearls made of jelly are also available in many places. These
> teas are shaken to mix the ingredients, creating a foam on the top of
> some varieties, hence the name.
> ...
> A common misconception in its English usage, the name "bubble tea" is
> often associated with pearl milk tea. However, "bubble tea" simply
> refers to the shaken or whipped drink base. "Bubble tea with pearls"
> is a more accurate description of the Taiwanese shaken/stirred/whipped
> tea containing tapioca pearls. Pearl milk tea (of which "bubble tea
> with pearls" is a subset), also known as "boba milk tea", can refer to
> any milk tea commonly used, such as Hong Kong-style milk tea, combined
> with tapioca.

Whatever the case with other associated terminology, note the persistent
use of "pearl".


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