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.

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