I was reading an article today on how the Royal Navy plied its sailors with a nightly ration of rum from the time Britain took over Jamaica in 1655 (at which time the ration was a gallon (!) of beer per day)* until 1970 and managed to work my way — a very straight line for once — to the expression “three sheets to the wind.”
The origins of this are not exactly clear, which is to be expected. Some say the term refers to square rigged tall ships, some say it refers to small sailing craft.
1. Sheets are ropes or chains attached to the lower corner of sails to keep them in place. So, by one definition, “if three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.” This particular website says that the earliest recorded use of the expression (which at the time was actually “three sheets in the wind”) was Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, which was published in 1821. A publication three years later, specifically of the novel The Fisher’s Daughter by Catherine Ward, suggests that there was a sliding scale of drunkenness beginning with (obviously, one feels) one sheet to (in) the wind and ending with four — in which the sailor is unconcious. It should be noted here that while Pierce Egan and Catherine Ward’s books are actual publications with actual references to the term, the authors of this post are drawing their primary information about the term itself from a group called CANOE — Committee to Assign a Nautical Origin to Everything. Hardly a reliable source.
2. Supporting the above hypothesis and offering a second are Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey who submitted, in their book Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions, that, “Sails are controlled with ropes called ‘sheets’ and the most any sail has is two – a lee side sheet and a weather sheet. The sailor’s contention is that if a man who had been drinking was given as many as ‘three’ sheets he could still not steady or control himself on a regular course. An alternative idea is that of a ship caught with three (jib) sheets in the wind as she goes from one tack to the other. The sails would flap and the ship would wallow and stagger in the locomotion of a drunk.”
3. Definitely most difficult to verify, but likely the most reliable, a submitter to the New York Times says, “The true origin of “three sheets to the wind” was disclosed to me by a Nantucket sailor. Four sheets to the wind are O.K. because they are balanced. So are two sheets now and then. But three? Never…Letting go a sailboat’s sheet to flap in the wind usually gets the skipper out of trouble by causing the boat to come up into the wind on an even keel — the opposite of the metaphor intended.” In this case, the submitter is talking about small boats…the kind you sail on the lake or in a harbour, not the kind that once hauled cargo across oceans.
4. Backing up our sailor’s friend are the Word Detectives. I have no idea who they are, but they seem at least reasonably researched.** Then again, so do the others, so take that as you will. According to them, “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.” They note that the legend — as indicated by others — that there was a numerical classification may be true based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the expression.***
Coincidentally, today is my third youngest cousin’s birthday. He’s 19.
*There was a practical purpose to this. It was to keep the sailors healthy…beer was safer to drink than the water they had available to them.
**I may only be saying this because they threw in some etymology.
***Personally, I’m not sure how the definition existing in a dictionary shows anything other than the existence of the expression in question, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.