Three sheets to the wind: How idioms originate

Last week I had mentioned to my sister that I saw my aunt at a function and she was three sheets to the wind. This meant I could not give her the important message. My sister looked at me in despair and said she did not know what that meant.

So, knowing my aunt and how she behaves at a function with free-flowing wine, it would be logical to deduce meaning: drunk, sozzled, downright inebriated, out of control, motherless etc.

My aunt, bless her soul, is toast after her third glass of wine, but when it’s on tap, her state of decline is beyond description – hence three sheets to the wind.

The origins of this idiom have a nautical reference and you might be thinking it has to do with feeling seasick, but that is not it.

Comes loose

Taken from sailing ships the ‘sheets’ are ropes or chains that control the trim of sail. A sheet that is in the wind has come loose from its mooring and is flapping in the wind like a flag.

A backfilled jib termed as being sheeted to the wind is normally a bad thing. But in a major storm when a ship is “hove to,” the helm is lashed to windward, and the jib(s) are sheeted to the windward side of the ship (sheeted to the wind) causing the ship to be swayed by the wind, losing balance on the water, and the ship is blown off course during a storm.

Back in the 1800’s

Traceable citations date back to 1821 and at the time sailors  had a ‘sliding (excuse the pun) scale’ of drunkenness; “three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just ‘one sheet in the wind’, or ‘a sheet in the wind’s eye’,” says

In certain periods of history, it seems that ‘two sheets’ was the more popular expression, or perhaps the more typical level of drunkenness, assuming society was more moderate. Now that would be dangerous.


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Iza Grek

Iza is an award-winning journalist. She has worked in advertising and communications for more than 20 years. A Word or 2 has been in operation since October 2014 and continues to thrive, serving customers writing and editing services across the board from blogs to speeches and e-books.