Ship Trivia: Three sheets to the wind

I’m starting a new column today, putting to use some of the mounds of random trivia generated during the research process while writing a couple of sea stories. It’s surprising how much modern English has its roots in all sorts of historical things, and seafaring is a rich source of interesting language. So here’s my first Ship Trivia entry!

Three sheets to the wind

Say this to an average person on the street, and he’ll probably figure that the popular euphemism for drunkenness has an origin in ship terminology. However, he’ll probably also get the derivation wrong. We say “sheets” and think of bedsheets – therefore, my average guy reasons, the sheets must be sails. If he thinks about this a little more (not easy if he is, in fact, three sheets to the wind) he’ll get confused. Putting out three extra sails would catch more wind, right, and wouldn’t that be a good thing? Or something? Get me another beer, ‘kay?

Sheets are actually not the sails but the ropes used to secure the sails at the lower corners (see this image). In a strong wind, you’d be triple-sheeted**: three ropes to hold the corners tightly. In a really strong wind, those three ropes could come loose, and then your sail would be unsecured and your boat would lurch in an out-of-control manner, much like my average guy after too many beers. According to The Phrase Finder, the original phrase is “three sheets in the wind,” i.e., flapping around in the wind instead of neatly tied like they should be:

The phrase is these days more often given as ‘three sheets to the wind’, rather than the original ‘three sheets in the wind’. The earliest printed citation that I can find is in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, 1821:

“Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.”

Sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just ‘one sheet in the wind’, or ‘a sheet in the wind’s eye’.

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** I have to admit I’m using “triple-sheeted” from memory. I tried searching for a reference but I kept getting hotel and cruise line matches talking about their triple-sheeted beds, whatever that is.

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