Don't Be An Idiom: Explaining "Three Sheets to the Wind"
Explaining the origin of everyday words and sayings
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: September 28th, 2012
he English language is a mess. A beautiful, complex, wondrous mess. For every rule of grammar and spelling there are 10 exceptions. There are words that share the same spelling, but have different pronunciations and meanings. Then there are words that have dual, sometimes opposite meanings. And then there are the countless idioms: phrases for which the meaning cannot be derived from a literal reading of the words. We all use idioms every day, often without realizing that they are idioms. And even if we know they’re idioms, we often don’t know where they came from.
And so here is the first in an ongoing series of pieces that will attempt to explain where some of the phrases we frequently use first originated.
IDIOM: Three sheets to the wind
MEANING: Extremely drunk.
EXAMPLE: “I don’t really remember what happened last week. I was three sheets to the wind for most of it.”
ORIGIN: If you’re like us, you may have assumed that this phrase had a nautical origin, due to the words “to the wind.” And if you’re even more like us, you may have further assumed that “sheets” referred to sails, but hopefully you aren’t that much like us, because you’d be right about the nautical part and wrong about the “sheets” part.
As any non-landlubber probably knows, a sheet (in nautical parlance) is a rope that controls the corners of a sail. If a sheet is loose, or “to the wind,” the ship will pitch and yaw, much like a drunkard attempting to walk.
The number three relates to several now-obsolete phrases that were used to describe varying levels of drunkenness: “one sheet to the wind” meant slightly tipsy, “two sheets to the wind” was moderately drunk, “three sheets to the wind” was very drunk, and “four sheets to the wind” meant unconscious.