How the marlin spike got its name.

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The marlin spike is used to loosen marline. While today it is called a marlin spike, originally it was a marlinespike and later a marlinspike. Why it became a Marlin Spike and is pronounced “Mar Len Spike” and not “Mar Line Spike” has more to do with bad diction and poor spelling.

First we will dispel the myth of it being named after a fish by the same name. In actuality, it is the other way around; the marlin fish is named after the spike. The same is true for the birds of the same name. They both got their names due to their resemblance to a sailor’s marlin spike.

This leads us to the question then of what in heck is a marlin or marline?

First you need to know what “marl” means. In the world of ropes marl is when you take two or more threads and twist them together to make a thicker line. The reason you use thin lines and twist them together is because these thin lines become stronger than a similar diameter line made of the same thickness.

From marl we get marline. A marline is a light rope of two strands used for binding larger ropes. While there are earlier uses for the word noted in the Oxford English Dictionary, we’ll take a look at a description from 1627 of “marline”

1627 J. SMITH Sea Gram. v. 25: Marling is a small line of vntwisted hemp, very pliant and well tarred, to sease the ends of Ropes from raueling out

Or in today’s language, Marline is a small line of untwisted hemp, very pliant and well tarred, to seize the ends of ropes from raveling out (unraveling).

Today marline is any strong waxed cord. In the age of sail the marline was not waxed but tarred. The only way to loosen the tarred marline from a rope was to pick the marline free. This was normally done with an iron spike. The act of picking the line free was known as marling. Thus the spike became known as the marlingspike or the marlinespike.

Almost from the beginning, the word was pronounced mar-len and not mar-line. You can blame this on the lack of diction coaches on ships of the line. Back in the age of sail, being able to read or write were not part of the recruitment requirements for able bodied sea faring men. A more normal requirement was to be in debt or to be drunk in a seaside tavern and get whacked over the head. This was called being pressed into service. Later the American version was called “shanghaied” Men would go west seeking fortune, end up in a tavern along the Barbary Coast or in Puget Sound have a little laudanum added to their rot gut and wake up on a ship to Shanghai.

The hapless mariner was bossed around by a mate or some type of master mariner. The men rose from the ranks, and ruled by sheer terror. Thus they were not inclined to ask new sailors “Would you mind terribly loosening the knot on that rope with a marline spike?” More likely he would bark “Yo thar! Get yer marlen spike on that line and run ‘er out!”

Well eventually marline spike became marlin spike simply because land lubbers spelled it the way the way they heard it pronounced.

I can imagine this had a little to do with knife makers being asked to make or add a “marlin spike” to a knife by sailors who could neither read or write, but knife makers having to keep records spelled the word as they heard it. This of course is pure conjecture. Marline, however, continued to be spelled marline.

By the time they got around to naming the fish and the bird, the damage had been done and both were named Marlins instead of Marlines; which is good because their nose/beak resembles a spike and not a piece of tarred rope!

Occasionally you’ll see people refer to a marlin spike as a fid. This is actually incorrect. Marlin spikes are always made of metal, normally iron or steel. Fids serve the same purpose as marlin spikes but are carved form wood, bone or ivory.

Marlin Spike
marlin spike with shackle key
A modern marlin spike with a shackle key integrated into the head.

A whale bone fid located in the Maritime Museum of Tasmania.