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shameless pleading

Three sheets to the wind

Followed by “Driving the porcelain bus.”

Dear Word Detective: Where did the expression “three sheets to the wind” come from? –Susan.

That’s a good question, but I have one of my own. “Three sheets to the wind” means, as most people know, “very drunk, extremely inebriated.” But does anyone actually use this expression today? I’ve never been much of a drinker myself (I think I last drank a beer about six years ago, for example). But I see people weaving loudly and unsteadily out of the sports bar at the local mall on weekends, dressed like overgrown toddlers in football regalia, and I find it hard to believe that at the office on Monday they say “Joe was really three sheets to the wind Saturday night.” “Blitzed,” “blotto” “hammered,” “loaded,” “looped” or “sloshed” I can buy. But “three sheets to the wind” seems a bit too ornate for a culture that worships plasma TVs.

Nonetheless (now there’s a good word), “three sheets to the wind” is a vivid and venerable phrase. The first example of “three sheets to the wind” found in print so far is from 1821 (in the form “three sheets in the wind”), but the expression is almost certainly much older. Today new slang is instantly immortalized by newspapers, magazines and TV, but before the mid-20th century, much slang circulated in oral use for decades and sometimes much longer before making it into print.

In the mood for some irony? Nine out of ten urban legends about the origins of words or phrases erroneously trace them to seafaring traditions and the age of tall ships. There’s even an acronym for the folks who propagate this nonsense: CANOE (Committee to Assign a Nautical Origin to Everything). But “three sheets to the wind” really does have a nautical origin. The “sheets” in the phrase are the lines (ropes) that hold a sail in place. If one of the “sheets” (from the Old English “sceata,” meaning the corner of a sail) comes loose, the sail flaps in the wind and causes the ship to lose power. If two sheets are loose and fluttering in the wind (or “to the wind”), you’re in major trouble, and “three sheets in the wind” means the ship is uncontrollable, reeling like a drunken sailor. Thus “three sheets to the wind” was the perfect metaphor for, at first, a sailor who had celebrated a bit too much on shore leave, and eventually anyone who was too drunk to walk steadily.

According to legend, “three sheets to the wind” was originally just one stage in a scale of drunkenness used by sailors, ranging from “one sheet to the wind” (slightly tipsy) to “four sheets to the wind” (unconscious). The Oxford English Dictionary does list “a sheet in the wind” as meaning “slightly drunk,” so such a classification system may actually have existed. Or, of course, it may just be another nautical fable.

8 comments to Three sheets to the wind

  • marlene Atleo

    See Sterlin harjo’s film….4 sheets to the wind

  • Elizabeth Lightwood

    Comment From Young Salt:

    If one lets out the sheets, which are the lines that control sail trim, the vessel does not reel crazily: it slows down significantly. The sails, on the other hand, will go mad, flap all over the place, and make a lot of obnoxious noise (the technical term is luffing). I rather expect the phrase has more to do with the behaviour of the sails than that of the ship.

  • Robert Gramcko

    Young Salt is correct loose sheets and flapping sails do not make for much drunken motion. Moreover the sheets wouldn’t be in the wind or to the wind, but rather on the leeward, away from the wind. However, when a sail boat is hove to, it hobby horses around 30 to 80 degrees and the sheets are tied off on the windward side. So the term better applies when hoved to; especially when used in a storm.

  • E Arnold

    No Way. Once your sails start flapping you lose forward motion. Your rudder will not work when you are not moving thru the water. You are effectively losing control.

    Any comments in this day and age as to where the term *dont bank on it* comes from?

  • [...] that wasn’t ideal, but if two or three sheets came loose at once, then chaos would ensue. Word Detective says, If two sheets are loose and fluttering in the wind (or “to the wind”), you’re in major [...]

  • Robert Gray

    In the early 1970′s I was on a vacation on Nantucket Island, where I was walking on a country road on a foggy early morning. I, and the next three passersby, were hailed by a windmill keeper to help him turn the revolving upper part of the wind mill to cause it to face into the wind by working together to push a long pole that caused needed the rotation. After we had helped turn the mill, the aged keeper, (probably in his 70′s or early 80′s) gave us a tour of the mill, showed us how he ground corn on a huge grind stone, and described how the mill worked. The four arms of the windmill were only a frames, but we were told that in a strong wind the wind would turn the mill without the canvas sheets being attached. If the wind was less, but still strong, he said that he put on two sheets, always on opposite arms to maintain a good balance. Finally, he used four sheets to operate the mill when there was a slight wind. He explained that he could never use one sheet, or three sheets, because that would cause a serious imbalance and cause the mill arms to wobble. He told us that the phrase used to describe a drunken seaman’s walk “three sheets to the wind,” came from this wobble in a high wind. Nantucket was a seafaring port that sent out whaling ships in the 18th and 19th century, and was well aquainted with intoxicated seamen. Our host said that the wobbling windmill arms were known everywhere in northern Europe and that this was the origin of the term “three sheets to the wind.” I learned that about 50 years ago from a miller who was born in the 19th century, and I have believed his explaination since that wonderful visit to Nantucket.

  • [...] the bottom corners of the sails to keep them in place. (The word comes from the Old English word scaeta, meaning “lower corner of the sail.”) This is a diagram of part of a ship’s mast. [...]

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