The evolution of a word–the case of ‘Clayton’s’

by Julia Robinson

Recently we posted a blog about ‘Kylie’, a term apparently coined by former Treasurer Peter Costello: ‘Then he thanked the Opposition for asking a “Kylie” – an “I should be so lucky” question giving the Government a parliamentary free kick.’ (2004 Adelaide Advertiser, 2 Dec.) As any Gen Xer will know, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ is the title of one of the songs that made Australian singer Kylie Minogue famous. We noted that this new sense of ‘Kylie’ is not an established usage; it is not widely used, and is always followed by a mention of the song title as an explanation of the term.

Jack Thompson (1971). Image source: NFSA

An established Australianism that has a similar history, but can successfully stand alone without its explanatory line, is Clayton’s. It arose from an advertising campaign in the 1970s and 80s for a non-alcoholic drink, sold in a bottle that resembled a bottle of spirits. The advertisement was set in a bar and featured the ruggedly good-looking Aussie actor and bon vivant Jack Thompson:


Barman: What’ll you have?

Jack: Claytons, thanks, Brian.

Bloke in bar: On the wagon, Jack?

Jack: No. When I don’t feel like alcohol, I have Claytons.

Voiceover: Claytons. The drink you’re having when you’re not having a drink.

Something about the line ‘the drink you’re having when you’re not having a drink’ struck a chord with the Australian public. Clayton’s was a word waiting to happen, and it came to mean ‘something that is largely illusory or exists in name only; a poor substitute or imitation’. The first evidence occurs in 1981:

Whenever invitations for either of the above variety of celebration arrive at our house, my wife says, ‘Oh, another Clayton’s affair’. Clayton’s are the birthdays mothers hold when they can’t be bothered holding a real birthday party at all. (Australian Womens Weekly, 26 Aug. 1981)

Clayton’s gained rapid acceptance through the 1980s and 90s. Frequently its use followed the original wording of the ad closely: ‘It was a Claytons budget–the sort of budget you have when you’re not having a budget’ (Perth West Australian, 24 Aug. 1983).  Eventually the word’s popularity meant that we all knew the line that followed and did not need to have it spelt out for us: ‘Andrew Peacock, still smarting from his unsuccessful Clayton’s campaign, must be wondering what he has done to anger the gods’ (Melbourne Herald, 20 Aug. 1989). It quickly became an established Australian term. Recent evidence shows that Clayton’s usually occurs on its own, although sometimes the phrase still follows.

The non-alcoholic drink itself is still sold (under the name ‘Claytons Kola Tonic’, $8.49 a bottle at one major liquor outlet), although it is a long time since it has been actively marketed. Considering that the original advertisement went to air nearly a generation ago, it is interesting to conjecture whether the word will continue to have a place in Australia’s active vocabulary as the memory of its origin fades. Some people are apparently wondering the same thing:

Now we have The Trip, a kind of Clayton’s movie. (For those who don’t remember the phrase: the movie you make when you’re not making a movie.) (Australian Financial Review, 2 July 2011)

Here’s Jack Thompson’s spoof on the original ad: