A Bex. Photo courtesy of the University of New South Wales.

In the 1960s, it was suggested a Bex would solve many of the world's problems. Photo courtesy of the University of New South Wales.

Word Watch

A cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down - a phrase used to indicate the need for a rest to settle down; a panacea.

A quirky 1960s phrase had more of a sinister tone than it suggested, as Australian National Dictionary editor AMANDA LAUGESEN, BA (Hons) '97, PhD '01 writes.

These days if someone wants you to 'settle down', they might tell you to "take a chill pill".

But an Australian phrase with the same sentiment and a much longer history is to have a cup of tea, a bex and a good lie down (sometimes with variants).

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott used the phrase ("have a Bex and a long lie down") when asked about the possibility of an early election. What is the story of this peculiar Australian idiom?

Bex was the proprietary name for a type of analgesic in powder form. It was often dissolved in water or a cup of tea and contained a strong painkiller called phenacetin, later discovered to be carcinogenic and to cause kidney disease. It was banned in the 1980s.

According to the Cancer Council of New South Wales, renal pelvis cancer rates dropped dramatically after the banning of this and similar analgesics.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Bex was marketed primarily to housewives, who might take the powerful analgesic several times a day. It was marketed as being the way to get a good night's sleep if, for instance, you had a bad cold.

The phrase that became popular - a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down - can be traced to a satiric revue of that name first performed in Sydney in 1965 at the Phillip Street Theatre.

The play was written by John McKellar (also responsible for writing the advertisement for Clayton's - "the drink you're having when you're not having a drink", which subsequently entered the vernacular to refer to something that exists in name only). It starred Ruth Cracknell and Reg Livermore and ran for more than 250 performances.

The revue appears to have coined the phrase although variations undoubtedly had been used in Bex advertising, which often emphasised both the importance of a hot cup of tea and going to bed after taking Bex powder.

From the 1970s, the phrase became firmly established in the Australian vernacular. It was sometimes used ironically, as in this January 1977 comment from the Sydney Morning Herald: "This nation was built on a cup of tea, a Bex, and a good lie down."

However, it was also used in the way described at the beginning of this article: "All I can recommend to one member of the Press Gallery is a Bex and a good lie down." (The Canberra Times, 9 March 1999)

When Abbott used the phrase this year, it seemed somewhat outdated. However, the phrase has not yet passed out of the Australian vernacular and is still familiar to many Australians.

The story of the phrase also tells us something about an important aspect of Australian social and medical history.