The Dead Marine Project
How did empty beer bottles come to be known as dead marines? Can any bottle be a dead marine, or just a beer bottle? We need your help to satisfy our curiosity.
In November 2001, Oliver and Geoff heard for the first time the term “dead marine” to describe an empty beer bottle. At that stage we'd lived a combined 65 years and had never heard the saying and assumed it was just a rare, perhaps regional, saying. That was in Queenscliff, in southern Victoria, Australia, and the bloke who used the term was from northern Victoria.
A week later, Oliver was 3000 kilometres away in Perth, Western Australia, when he heard a local say at the end of a party, “Look at all those dead marines.”
Those events inspired us to seek all the information we could about the term "dead marine". We've heard various explanations about where it originates, including:
- When glass bottles were refillable (as opposed to recyclable), marine dealers used to collect them and run the depots where people could take their bottles for refunds. The bottles were empty, and therefore dead, and collected by the marine dealer. Hence the term “dead marine”.
- In days past, sailors on the high seas used to throw their empty bottles overboard, where they would bob around like “dead marines”.
If you can shed some light on the origins of this saying, please email us.
Likewise, if you've heard the term before, let us know, because we'd be interested to know how widely it is used around Australia and the world.
What you said
dead marine noun Colloquial A bottle which has contained beer, whisky, etc., but is now empty. [from obs. dead marine a sailor who is insensible as a result of intoxication]
First heard the term “dead marine” many years ago, and have been using it since I was small. Its usage has been more generic, applying to all empty booze (but mostly wine) bottles. No idea about its origins.
Greg, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia (March 2002)
Your first answer about the marine dealer is correct, all bottleos who came to your house to collect bottles had to have a marine dealers licence. They also could collect scrap metal. I can remember in the fifties sticking dead marines in the sand on the beach and singing, “One dead marine sitting in the sand. If we drink another there will be two dead marines” and so on till we ran out of beer.
Stan Gray, Perth, Western Australia (March 2002)
The term 'dead marine' is an American term. It is a military joke that that refers to the state of most members of the USMC (Note: US Marine Corp) after a battle … dead. i.e. dead marines all over the battle field..dead marines all over the living room floor (beer bottles).
Joe, Queensland, Australia (May 2002)
I believe you were close with your reasoning on the term “dead marine”. I come from South Australia, where the term is used quite frequently, and have it on good authority that the story goes somewhat like this:
The bit about marines selling the bottles for refilling is true, but from that point, your theory starts to waver. My source tells me that these bottle dealers, being marines, became known as “marine dealers”, hence the product in which they dealt soon became known as marines.
But they not only sold empty bottles, but would often refill the bottles with their own brews and sell that for a minor profit. Hence, it was necessary to differentiate between full and empty bottles.
From this we have two terms:
Marine (not often heard): used to describe a full bottle of beer, often homebrewed.
Dead marine: used to describe and empty beer bottle.
Brady March, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (April 2002)
The term was first used by William IV, the Duke of Clarence in the early to mid 1800s. While the guest of honor aboard a royal ship, he told the steward to remove those “dead marines”. A Marine major rose up and asked why his highness applied the name of the corps to which he served to an empty bottle. The Duke replied, “I call them marines because they are good fellows who have done their duty and are ready to do it again.“
Rafael, Honolulu, Hawaii, United States (July 2002)
The first time I heard the empty beer bottle called a dead marine was in about 1981 at Middleton beach, South Australia. I thought they were called that because they were as much use as a dead marine.
Jennifer, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia (formerly of South Australia) (December 2002)
This is the first time I’ve ever heard an empty beer bottle called a dead marine – although I found all the explanations for the term quite fascinating. In my family, and this is a term especially used by my mother, we call them “Dead Goldfish”! i.e. when someone is going to the fridge to get another beer you call out “my goldfish is dead can you get me another?”. I’m sure there’s no folklore behind the term and that its origins are firmly entrenched in my mother quaintly delusional mind, nevertheless I have always wondered whether anyone else has heard of the term. Maybe its my mother’s own version of the Dead Marine term.
Andrew, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia (May 2003)
I asked my friend if he had heard anything about empties being referred to as dead marines, and he said not dead marines but dead soldiers. He said he heard it up north in Townsville, when some old timer friend of his family exclaimed, “Look at all those dead soldiers lying against the shed wall”, and something else about beer consumption and the human body. He didn't ask about the origins or anything, but I thought I would mention it.
Greywolf, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia (June 2003)
In the United States the saying is “dead soldiers” and less frequently “dead marines”. Both are slang for an empty beer bottle.
The explanation I've heard most frequently (for the phrase “dead soldiers”) derives largely from World War I and perhaps the American Civil War (1861-65). These instances do not pre-date the reference to William IV, the Duke of Clarence's comment (he died in 1837). But it is likely rationale behind the phrase “dead soldier” the same as for “dead marine”
The reason is that when a soldier died on the field of battle there was not always time for a full and honorable burial. In fact many soldiers were simply thrown into shallow graves. Because time and resources were limited, headstones were often improvised — inverted beer bottles would be used as headstones. The bottles generally held identification and personal effects. Beer bottles frequently had wider mouths and hence items could be inserted fairly easily. Later, when the battle had passed by, it would be possible to locate a dead soldier, disinter them, identify them and take proper measures for burial and notification of the nearest relatives.
The United States began using identification discs in the Civil War and tags in WWI (both pre-date the “dog tag” in use today). The aluminum tags used in WWI could be bent double and inserted in the bottles prior to sticking the bottle in the ground as a headstone.
Here is a reference from the Oxford English Dictionary for “dead marine”: “1928 Bulletin (Sydney) ‘The dead marine is put to all sorts of uses out back. I have seen many a grave in village cemeteries neatly surrounded with inverted empties.’ ” I suspect this would have been — given the 1928 dateline — a WWI cemetery where the dead had been buried for some time, which would indicate that the empties in this context were not being used for placing personal identification and effects. Perhaps just former buddies making sure their friends had a beer or two in the afterlife?
Jeff, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States (June 2003)
This term comes from the days of hard drinking at sea. The story is told that William IV, Duke of Clarence and Lord High Admiral, pointed at some empty bottles and said, “Take away those marines.”
A dignified and elderly major of marines rose from the table and said, “May I respectfully ask why your Royal Highness applies the name of the Marine Corps, to which I have the honor to belong, to an empty bottle?” The Duke, with tact and characteristic grace that was his, replied promtly, “I call them marines because they are good fellows who have done their duty and are ready to do it again.” And thus the saying was born.
I draw this statement from a book by William P. Mack and Royal W. Cannell titled Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions on page 246.
EN2 Keith N. Shoaf
United States Navy
This is a reference to dead marines that I came across recently. It's from The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Vintage 1998, Great Britain, page 297:
“Pamela's taboos: jokes about her background, mentions of whisky-bottle ‘dead soldiers’, and any suggestion that her late husband, the actor Saladin Chamcha, was still alive, living across town in a bed and breakfast joint, in the shape of a supernatural beast.”
Geoff, Victoria, Australia
(yes, Geoff of homebrewandbeer.com!) (November 2003)
I've heard of “lining the dead soldiers up on the table”, but I don’t know the origins. I've also heard of “bayoneting the wounded”, which is going around and finishing off any not quite “dead soldiers” that are lying around with beer still in them when the fridge, bar, keg, cooler, etc, has been emptied.
Michael Stoneberg, United States (December 2003)
I am a Kiwi and my dad, who is from Tauranga (near Auckland on New Zealand's North Island), always called them dead marines for as long as i can remember, and that is a long time.
Ross, Ipwich, Queensland, Australia (December 2003)
The term is derived from the way they float when empty, first bobbing head up the upside down, like a dead marine. I've never heard them refered to as dead soliders.
Mark and Tanya, location unknown (December 2003)
I am 43 years old and live in Broken Hill. I have always known empty beer bottles as dead marines (another one bites the dust). I don't know why but you've been given some pretty good ideas.
Sloppy (Neil Lihou), Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia (June 2004)
Written from the land of (ouch!!) Budweiser!
I have 2 cans of Bud in my fridge that has been there for over 12 months, which indicates a huge disinterest in American beers.
I think the Bud finally gets to be called a 'dead marine' after I empty it into the sink. Dead marine is a term I've been aware of, I believe, from way back in my Adelaidean days. (Note: Bryce moved from South Australia to the US in 1965.)
I look forward to early November when I visit Adelaide so I can taste a Cooper's, a beer my father used to drink, every day, after a hard day in the bakehouse on Unley Road (Adelaide).
An edited message from Oliver's great-uncle, Bryce Rohde, San Francisco, California, US (June 2004)
Just to add a slightly different marine perspective to the whole thing …
That humble bottled tossed over the side of a boat (whether by shipwreck, bad weather or the finishing act of a happily drunk fisherman or sailor) creates a wonderful marine sanctuary. Scuba divers spend hours enjoying scouring the ocean floor for humble dead marines in the hope of scoring either something historic or something cool like an octopus. Long live the dead marine.
Gillian Manson, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (June 2004)
Nice to hear that the old sayings linger on. I grew up at Southend, near Essex, England, and am now aged late 78. As a boy seaman in the Royal Navy, from 1940 till 1960, there was always some emnity between sailors and marines, especially aboard ships that carried both. Throughout my service marines were known as bootnecks, turkeys, leathernecks (owing to their high-necked uniform) and more commonly “empty bottles”, which simply meant “f---ing useless and no use to anyone”. Yes it was insulting but you should have heard what they called us!!!
Ron Brunton, Western Australia (September, 2004)
William IV was known as the “Sailor King”. As the third son of George III, he was born Prince William Henry. In 1789 he became Duke of Clarence. As a youth he joined the navy as a midshipman and rose through the ranks. Someone in his social position might expect to become rear admiral through patronage. The Duke of Clarence made rear admiral through true merit.
Shortly after receiving his promotion to rear admiral in 1790, His Highness was at dinner on board one of his fleet's ships. He ordered the steward to remove the 'dead marines' to make room for new bottles. A marine officer at the table complained. His Highness responded that no offense was intended. The expression was used in the sense “…that, like marines, the bottle had given its life nobly and, given the chance, would do it again”.
The story caught the imagination of the army officers. They wanted their soldiers to be held in the same favorable view. They adapted the term for their use, changing it to “dead soldiers“. Since it's more nautical, I think it's fun to use the original term “dead marines” when I refer to a freshly emptied wine bottle.
Taken from chapter eight, Dead Soldiers, Devils, and More, of Sailor Talk, by Bear Downing
I play in a band called The Dead Marines, an expression I learnt from my mother e.g. the next day after a party, dead marines everywhere. She's a fourth-generation Australian but there were a lot of Irishisms passed down over the years from both sides of the family.
Brendan Gallagher, Australia (November, 2004)
* Find out more about Brendan and his band at www.karmacounty.com.au
I'm a 35-year-old beer lover from Adelaide and have heard the expression since I was a kid. I've also heard them called dead soldiers.
Gary Clarke, Adelaide, Australia (December, 2004)
I am a bit like everyone else the saying has been around all my life, but not so much these days. I’m now 50 but I can remember that in the late '50s and '60s people were nowhere near as litter conscious as now. We used to live at the beach and I can remember Dad calling the beer bottles strewn all over the beach on a Sunday morning dead marines. In those days my Dad was a young father and had been a child of the war years, I can just imagine him and his mates doing the same thing. My father-in-law was actually in the war and always refers to an empty bottle as a dead marine and turns then upside down if in a holder. Next time I’m talking to him I’ll give him the drill and see if he has any insights.
Rob (January, 2005)
I grew up in Adelaide and the term was in common use there during the early 1970s. We were always told the name came about as the “dead” (empty) glass bottles were collected by marine dealers also, so I can verify the first of your explanations.
Stuart, Point Cook, Victoria, Australia (March, 2005)
This is the first time I recall coming across this particular expression.
However, I do recall hearing the expression “dead soldiers” many times. The earliest recollection being from when I was more than a few years short of the legal drinking age. Sitting in a pub with my grandfather and some of his mates, in a small town on the Darling Downs west of Toowoomba. Given that this was somewhere between 30 and 40 years ago, the memory is somewhat hazy, but I believe that "dead soldiers" referred to both empty bottles and empty glasses.
If my memory serves me correctly, this pub was the only one in town if you don't count the RSL across the road. The town did have a police station, but on the weekend the only police to be seen were in the very occasional patrol car from Toowoomba. The vast majority of the pub clientele seemed to be farmers from the surrounding district, of which my grandfather was one. For some reason, I also seem to recall that most of them were second world war veterans.
One very clear memory I do have is that my grandfather would only drink Pilsener or straight rum.
Friendless, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia (May, 2005)
I have been looking into the origin of the phrase “dead marines”.
The earliest references are simply to “dead men” when referring to empty liquor bottles. I have found references from before 1758 but have found on the web that the term has been used since the 1600s. It is simply a little joke: “the spirit's gone out of him”.
The evolution of the saying into “dead marine” came from the Royal Navy, but not the Duke of Clarence. The RN seaman says that like an empty bottle a marine is of no use to anyone, and if dropped over the side in the position of attention would float upright because of the size of his boots. The marine's retort is that like an empty bottle he is always ready for duty again.
But it is pretty obvious to those of us who homebrew. Your soldiers stand up tall in neat ranks on your homebrew shelf, but once their duty is done they are scattered across the field.
Heres a little ditty for you! See it in its entirety at www.contemplator.com/england/deadmen.html
Here's a health to the King, and a lasting peace
May faction end and wealth increase.
Come, let us drink it while we have breath,
For there's no drinking after death.
And he who would this toast deny,
Down among the dead men,down among the dead men,
Down, down, down, down;
Down among the dead men let him lie!
— Traditional, John Dwyer (1700-1758)
Jeff Hoolihan (April 2005)
Here in Canada we call them “dead soldiers” rather than dead marines. Same subject, different terminology. I really can't remember when I first heard the term “dead soldier”. It was long ago in a galaxy far, far away. However, the first time I encountered the term “dead marine” was on your website!
By the way, what the hell are you guys talking about? There's no such thing as “bad” beer; some are just better than others.
David Clift, Brights Grove, Ontario, Canada (June 2005)
I first heard the term “Dead Marine” while out in our boat fishing. My father used to say, “There goes another dead marine” when a empty stubby would float past the boat.
Trevor Smith, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia (August, 2005)
My parents (from Toowoomba, Queensland) always used the term “dead marines”, but I have no idea of its origins.
Recently I came across some information that would interest you on this topic though. In casual reading I noted that none other than Henry Lawson used the term in his article “The Darling River” (referring to empty bottles floating down the river), written in 1893. This article was published in The Country I Come From but fortunately republished in the complete works in 1984 (it only took me 20 years to get around to reading them; the book has been sitting unread on my book shelf for close to 20 years!).
The term seems to have faded from use in the last 15 years.
Shane, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (June 2005)
I have heard that term before, but I heard it as "dead soldiers". Huh, weird? I originally heard the term from my buddy up at his cabin in Wisconsin. Probably five to 10 years ago. As far as origin goes I have no idea. So I have only heard it in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Grant Farnsworth, Minnesota, US (March 2006)
Being of non-English speaking background I've never heard the term "dead marine" applied to the empty bottle before, but it makes perfect sense.
I've read in a lot of stories, that when the ship sank or wrecked on the desert coast the common way to let the rest of the world know about the disaster was to seal a message in the bottle in let it swim, hoping for someone to find the message.
It makes perfect sense that at those times, when you saw a bottle on the beach or swimming in the sea, it was associated with dead sailors (i.e. "dead marines") and with their last message.
Alex Tikovsky, Frankston, Victoria, Australia (May 2006)
This is the first time I've ever heard the term, however I am quite familiar with a similar one. Whenever there is partially empty beer bottles around they've been referred to as "wounded soldiers". I'm guessing this is because they haven't been finished off yet, like a soldier who is injured but not dead. Maybe its derived from "dead marines".
Ross Druckenmiller, Connecticut, US (August 2006)
I live in southern Queensland and am an ex New Zealander. I do not think that the term dead marines is anything derogatory to the US Marines. I can remember, donkey's years ago (in the 1950s) in New Zealand that we always referred to an empty bottle as a dead marine. Where the term came from I do not know. Needless to say, in my lifetime, I have sunk many dead marines.
Dennis Halcrow, Queensland, Australia (August 2006)
I don't know the origin of the saying, but I do know that it is not restricted only to beer bottles.
As a lad my mother used to call empty coffee mugs scattered around my bedroom “dead marines”. She is from South Africa, or English descent. I asked her about the term and she says she got it from her mother and she thinks it's an expression from World War 2.
Mike Adams, Britain (December 2006)
Because sailors relied on beer as their water of life during long voyages, whenever they finished a bottle they paid homage to a group of sailors who ran out of beer during a voyage and died, not through lack of food, but no drinking water (i.e. beer)!
Hence dead marines.
Mal (January 2007)
I can not shed any light on the origin of “dead marines” but I do know that as publicans in the '60s and '70s it was a well-used phrase. I have heard it used all over Australia for many many years.
Bill Knight, Victoria, Australia (February 2007)
Yeah guys, I'm ex-RAN (Royal Australian Navy) and empty beer bottles lying, or floating, around anywhere were generally called “dead marines”. About as handy as an empty beer bottle when you needed one too!
Hendo, Australia (February 2007)
I heard the saying “dead marines” this year from a bloke in the Northern Territory.
When I asked him about the term he said it stemmed back from the Second World War as a bit of a pun to the American GIs, who when in Europe drank bottles of beer from the liberated towns and just threw the bottles everywhere saying they were “dead marines”.
This is what I was told hope that also helps in your quest.
I have also heard the term in an American movie, which I believe was King Frat.
Richard, Port Pirie, South Australia (April 2007)
The origin of the term “dead marines” for an empty bottle refers to the fact that when an empty bottle is tossed into the sea it floats neck up. Matelows (seamen) of the Royal Navy, who in the early days worked ship bare-footed, believed this was caused by the marines heavy boots holding them upright in the water.
Tony Cude, Royal Marines Association Queensland, Australia (April 2007)
I first heard the saying “dead soldier” in relation to an empty pop bottle in the 1950s in Missouri, USA, from friends of my parents who were from Oklahoma, USA. They said there used to be a “Soldier Beer“ brand of beer. So far I have not found such … maybe they made it up that it used to be a brand of beer since it freaked us kids out to visualize dead soldiers with each bottle we had to pick up.
Jeanette Evans (June 2007)
My Dad and I both use this term to describe empty beer bottles. We dont use it to describe any other style of empty. I have no idea about origins though.
Daniel, New South Wales, Australia (June 2007)
I seem to remember a Stephen King character calling an empty beer can “one dead soldier”. I believe it was in a book about a car that had a mind of its own. I don't remember the title.
tsweeney (July 2007)
I remember my mother calling empty beer bottles lying around after a party “dead marines” (in the early '60s). My family has been in Queensland since the mid 1800s. I always assumed that it was a Second World War saying because of the image of dead marines half floating in the surf after an amphibious landing. (Think Saving Private Ryan.)
I also assumed that it was grim and poignant wit, drinkers wit amongst soldiers recalling the terrible casualties that the US Marines suffered, particularily in the Pacific battles.
David Lovegrove, New South Wales, Australia (January 2008)
If it did originate in Australia, the term Dead Marine had certainly transferred to the British Royal Navy by early in the 20th century. My father was in the Royal Navy from 1915 to 1932. He always referred to empty bottles the morning after as Dead Marines. I am certain that it comes from the way sailors regarded marines, of whom there was nearly always a small detachment on board any but the smallest ship.
Under the usually despised Seargent of Marines (“Jauntie”/Master at Arms) they were effectivly the ship's policemen. They were known as bootnecks by the seamen due to their straplike stiff collar (in contrast to the sailors' much looser and more comfortable fore and aft rig). I have always pictured them standing to attention like beer bottles with a band around the neck and a tight cap. Marines were considered by seamen as useless and a dead marine as particularly so.
Geoff Clarkson, Shrewsbury, England (May 2008)
It hails from William IV. He asked his steward to remove the “dead marines” from the dinner table to make room for new bottles while having dinner aboard one of his navy's ships. An officer at the table took offence and William IV replied, “Like a good marine the bottle gave its life nobley and with honour.”
Anonymous, United States (July 2008)
I'm not sure how much light this will shed, but in Australia it is common to refer to abandoned or half drunken unclaimed beers as “Wounded Soldiers”. It sound like it may be in reference to “Dead Marines”
Marcus Arruzza, New South Wales, Australia (October 2008)
I was born in South Australia in 1955 and I can remember the dead marine term from a very early age, probably as young as eight or 10.
I remember clearly the days my dad would drive slowly along the outskirts of town as my brother and I collected empty bottles from the roadside and later take these to the local "marine" shop for cash. Yes, no anti-littering laws in those days, just throw it out the window. South Australia still has a system in place where you can get money for your "dead marines". In fact most regular drinkers have a bottle stack behind the shed.
I am 58 years old and my dad and uncles always said “another Dead Marine” when I was a little girl. The official title of the bottlo who used to come and collect the bottles was a Marine Dealer.
The origin of the term has s always been a question I wanted to know the answer to as well. Even if it was initiated by sailors how come it has lasted so long? There has to be some reason. I have asked all the clever people I know but they can't come up with an answer. When you do find out please let me know and put me out of misery.
Christine Shaw, Picton, Western Australia (January 2009)
I was a Coast Guard Officer and my husband is still in. I am writing a nautical sayings book in which the term may appear. I need to verify it but rumor has it …
Dead Marines: Was coined by the Duke of Clarence when, at a banquet aboard ship in his honor, ordered the removal of the empties by saying, “Take away those dead marines.” A major of marines asked “Why nickname empty bottles after my honorable corps?”, to which the Duke, who was fair witted and not wanting to offend, replied “Because they are fine fellows who have nobly done their duty, and, if filled once more, would be willing to do so again.”
Further research may or may not reveal the truth, but it's a good one nonetheless …
J.G. Croot, Alexandria, Virginia, USA (February 2009)
Back in the good old days when I was a lad in the '50s and '60s at Berkely, on Lake Illawarra near Picton in New South Wales, we as Boy Scouts had a thing called a bottle drive to raise money for the troop. We used to go round the streets in a large tip-truck borrowed from the local hauler who was the local Scout leader. We'd knock on doors asking for all the old dead marines laying around the place and under the house. The reward as I remember was a penny a bottle returned in a clean condition, with dates on the bottle bottom, all being stacked in their respective crates.
We had some good trips away, using the best quality gear at the time.
Hope this bit of trivia is of help to your cause.
Geoff Parsons, Howard, Queensland, Australia (March 2009)
Yesterday I watched the movie Ken Park. In one scene a drunk passenger, who just took his last sip of a beer bottle, looks at the empty bottle and says; “Dead Soldier”. Then he puts the bottle away. This got my interest because here in the Netherlands we have an expression “Soldaat maken”, which means “To make soldier”. The expression can be used for everything that you are about to consume, unlike the expression “Dead Soldier” which is used after consuming and is only related to bottles.
I believe the Dutch expression is related to conquer, take over or confiscating land, buildings or possessions of the enemy.
I hope this information was useful. I can at least say that the use of the expression in the American movie Ken Park means that it is also used in the US.
Dirco Silvius, The Netherlands (April 2009)
I can remember my grandfather (born 1890) referring to “dead marines” only when on board a boat, usually when they where “buried” over the side by filling with water or when one floated by, when he would say “There goes a dead marine.“ He always insisted that they should be buried (sunk) so that they did not pose a hazard to a fast boat.
Greg Keays, formerly of Mildura, Victoria, Australia (April 2009)
I have never heard the term “dead marines” but my Dad who was Russian/Polish and my Uncle who is Czech always referred to empty vodka bottles as “dead soldiers”. I never heard the term used from anyone on the Italian side of my family so I just assumed the term was Eastern European in origin. Now I refer to any empty liquor/beer bottle as a “dead soldier”.
Franca, Brooklyn, New York (added January 2010)
The term “dead marines” came from Aussie soldiers in the Second World War when they landed after initial beach landings by the US marines secured a beach-head. i.e. Dead marines lay scattered like bottles washed up on the shores. It’s an example of fairly black humour that pervaded amongst men who had grown accustomed the death as an everyday spectacle. It was a very common term in my era just after the Second World War and growing up on the beaches of Sydney, but I guess things have changed.
Keith, Victoria, Australia (added January 2010)
What a fascinating discussion of the term “dead marine”. I'm 25 years old and a fifth-generation Aussie. My ancestors hail mostly from Victoria and South Australia, but everyone in my family calls the empties dead marines (including my octogenarian grandmothers), though I have also heard on my travels around Australia “dead soldiers” and “dead sailors”.
I haven't really queried the origin of the term before now. My father is a barman, so I will have to give him a grilling as to his knowledge of the term. I fancy that you could use the term in reference to any empty bottle, but mostly alcohol bottles, and more correctly beer bottles.
At any rate, one of your readers is quite right, the term is used by (Henry) Lawson in The Darling River. Here is a passage:
Floating bottles began to be more frequent, and we knew by that same token that we were nearing "Here's Luck!" -- Bourke, we mean. And this reminds us.
When the Brewarrina people observe a more than ordinary number of bottles floating down the river, they guess that Walgett is on the spree; when the Louth chaps see an unbroken procession of dead marines for three or four days they know that Bourke's drunk. The poor, God-abandoned "whaler" sits in his hungry camp at sunset and watches the empty symbols of Hope go by, and feels more God-forgotten than ever -- and thirstier, if possible -- and gets a great, wide, thirsty, quaking, empty longing to be up where those bottles come from. If the townspeople knew how much misery they caused by their thoughtlessness they would drown their dead marines, or bury them, but on no account allow them to go drifting down the river, and stirring up hells in the bosoms of less fortunate fellow-creatures.
It is essentially talking about the township of Burke “being the most drunken town on the river”. The Darling River appears in Over The Sliprails, published in 1900, therefore we can conclude that the term predates both the World Wars and probably has little to do with the US Marine Corps.
Well, that's my contribution, now back to cleaning up all these dead marines!!!
Kitty, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia (January 2010)
I live in Geelong and grew up in Bendigo, Victoria. I've heard this term many times in both places. I am 48 years old and the expression is mainly used by my father's generation. However, I use it often myself. I've always assumed that dead marines referred to empty bottles because sailors were known for their heavy drinking.
Steve, Geelong, Victoria, Australia (January 2011)
I came across your website while searching for the origin of the expression “dead marine” for an empty beer bottle. It was an expression my father and his mates used quite commonly in the 1960s when I was a child; almost after every time they finished a “king brown”(a large brown beer bottle) they would say “there’s another dead marine”. He was ex-military, so I’m guessing he picked the term up during his service years? He is no longer with us so I can’t ask him.
I know that bottle dealers are known as marine dealers, hence the connection with dead marines and empty beer bottles, but I’m still searching for the connection between “marine” and “bottles”.
Neil, Western Australia (January 2011)
In researching something quite different I found a reference to the Murray Pioneer newspaper of Renmark, South Australia, in 1912:
On Wednesday afternoon the police borrowed Mr Birk’s dray and made a collection of dead marines from around the hotel. They were deposited in the cells and dealt with in Court next morning.
Reg Taylor, Adelaide, South Australia (January 2011)