Q: I was wondering about the phrase “three sheets to the wind,” meaning intoxicated. Any ideas of its origin? Why “three” instead of “one” or “two” sheets?
A: It’s an expression from the era of sailing ships. The “sheets,” it turns out, are lines (ropes, to a landlubber), not sails, as many people think.
Why three sheets? One explanation may be that a sloop, the most common sailboat, has one mast, two sails, and three sheets. (The sheets are used to trim, or adjust, the sails, making the most efficient use of the available wind.)
The expression was originally “three sheets in the wind,” but now it’s usually “three sheets to the wind.” Most language references explain it this way: If the sheets are loose, the sails can flap around, not unlike drunken sailors stumbling back to their ship after a night on the town.
The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1821, but I prefer a scene in the Dickens novel Dombey and Son (1848) where Captain Cuttle believes Bunsby “was three sheets in the wind, or, in plain words, drunk.”
I once made a mess of the nautical terms when I tried to explain all this on the air, but a listener kindly straightened me out. I hope I have the terminology right this time. My sailing experience is limited to capsizing a Sunfish every few years, so please excuse my shaky sea legs.
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