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The term "over the counter" (OTC) is normally used for non-prescription medicines, but what does the word "counter" refer to?

The word "counter" has different meanings. It can mean the desk for business, the disc for board games, the tools for counting or calculation. What does "counter" mean in "over the counter"?

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    There are similar questions; you could search the site, see if anything helps.
    – Xanne
    Jun 19, 2023 at 6:25
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    A shop counter is the surface or structure that separates customers from the shop staff. The question is suitable for ELL.
    – Anton
    Jun 19, 2023 at 6:50
  • A counter is a kind of table - a table /surface used for work./business generally, such as a shop counter, the table where customers are served or payments are made. It's aslo possible to use it in other contexts, such as a kitchen counter, where you prepare food.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 19, 2023 at 9:51
  • Actually OTC is not specific to buying medicines. It can be used anywhere that there is buying and selling involved. Jun 20, 2023 at 11:47
  • In contrast, "under the counter" goods were goods you had to ask for ... in some contexts, when there were no nosey people around. During wartime, that might include black market goods which ought to be rationed, for example. Jun 20, 2023 at 21:55

2 Answers 2

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Stuart's answer is already quite good but I'll just tighten the focus directly to your question:

The term "over the counter" (OTC) is normally used for non-prescription medicines, but what does the word "counter" refer to?

The pharmacy counter. Over the counter distinguishes the medicine the customer can easy get ahold of on their own against the stronger but more dangerous prescription-only medicine that is behind the counter.

[There's a comment by Edwin Ashworth above that historically all the medicine was behind the counter and the OTC medicine could just be handed over without a doctor's prescription. That's probably the actual original idea although that's not really how OTC meds have ever worked. Go that far back and people were buying OG OTC laudinum and snake oil from the guys with the cart outside the pharmacy. The more things change...]

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    That wasn't true only for medicine. That's how all shopping worked. One approached the counter and asked the shopkeeper for four candles or whatever it was one wanted.
    – TRiG
    Jun 19, 2023 at 15:53
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    Based on google n-grams, it looks like "off the shelf" didn't gain traction until the 1930s or so... so it seems that "over the counter" might have been used in a similar ("purchasable in a shop") way before being mostly phased-out (except where it survives as a distinction between prescription-versus-nonprescription). Though maybe this is a detail more geared toward an english.stackexchange answer rather than an ell.stackexchange answer.
    – DotCounter
    Jun 19, 2023 at 16:36
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    I am doubtful about the over vs behind the counter claim. The counter traditionally acts as a barrier between the shopkeeper and the customers. It blocked the customers from getting to the items that they wanted to buy. A customer cannot get items whether over or behind the counter because of that barrier. Jun 20, 2023 at 11:51
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    @DanPrice: that sounds logical, but it doesn't chime with real-world usage. An over-the-counter drug is a drug that can be purchased without a doctor's prescription; this includes analgesics like aspirin, which you can buy off the shelf. This authoritavive source agrees with Wikipedia's definition.
    – TonyK
    Jun 20, 2023 at 13:17
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    @MikeB The more general expression is 'under the table' and, nah, probably not. The distinction here is between prescription medicine and OTC, not between legal medicine and illicit drugs.
    – lly
    Jun 20, 2023 at 15:09
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"Counter" refers to a table over which business is done, in this case buying and selling medicines (as opposed to prescribing them) but the term can be used for any purchase of goods. To find the detailed history, I had to go to The Oxford English Dictionary, which says under counter, meaning 4 a:

A banker's or money-changer's table; also, the table in a shop on which the money paid by purchasers is counted out, and across which goods are delivered. The tradesman stands behind the counter; goods are sold and money paid over the counter.

This meaning of "counter" goes back to the 17th century. The oldest sense of the word "counter" was for a token used in accounting, and later in playing games. The meaning of a table for doing calculations followed soon after, by about 1500. This expanded to refer to tables in banks over which business was done, and later to tables in shops.

Rference: "counter, n.3". OED Online. March 2023. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 19, 2023)

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    And while prescriptions are also passed over said wooden (etc) surface, 'over the counter' means 'with the complete transaction being done at the pharmacist's'. No 'first visit the doc at the surgery' necessary / involved. Jun 19, 2023 at 10:32
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    @EdwinAshworth Although it's become an anachronism, as OTC medicines are now taken from self-service shelves at the drug store, you don't go to the pharmacy counter at all. The only counter involved is the cashier, and self-checkout may bypass that as well.
    – Barmar
    Jun 19, 2023 at 14:46
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    Ironically, the term refers to drugs you can purchase without a prescription, but in modern pharmacies, those are all on the shelf and no counter is involved. The ones you need a prescription for, now those are given to you literally over a counter. So the phrase now means the exact opposite of what actually occurs. English is silly sometimes. Jun 19, 2023 at 20:49
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    In Australia pharmacies keep all medications behind the counter (including those that you can buy from supermarkets, although pharmacies are allowed to stock higher dosages and larger quantities of those). This includes the discount chain known for doing everything to cut costs, so it’s likely required by law. So OTC medications are still given to you over the counter by a pharmacist or pharmacy assistant.
    – Ben Murphy
    Jun 20, 2023 at 3:36
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    @Barmer That is not correct in UK English. OTC medicine is that which you specifically cannot get from a self-service shelf, but which must be bought by speaking to the person behind the counter. In some cases this might simply be larger quantities of things which can be bought off-the-shelf (OTS). In other cases it's something that can only be dispensed by a pharmacist - a common example is decongestant containing pseudoephedrine. So ordered by increasing ease of access, it goes prescription->OTC->OTS.
    – Nye
    Jun 20, 2023 at 12:05

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