Thursday, September 1, 2011

Three Sheets

I heard "He was three sheets to the wind.." at work this morning. I had to look it up. From

To understand this phrase we need to enter the arcane world of nautical terminology. Sailors' language is, unsurprisingly, all at sea and many supposed derivations have to go by the board. Don't be taken aback to hear that sheets aren't sails, as landlubbers might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. 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.

The phrase is these days more often given as 'three sheets to the wind', rather than the original 'three sheets in the wind'. The earliest printed citation that I can find is in Pierce Egan's Real Life in London, 1821:

"Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind."

Sailors at that time had a sliding 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'.


Evil_Klown said...

I've always heard "three sheets in the wind" which worked in my imagination cuz I'm old enough to have had a clothesline for most of my childhood.

I've never heard the term "three sheets to the wind" which he claims to be more popular now.

I'm also guessing they had clotheslines back in old Wax and Bristles time.

In this definition it says the three sheets (ropes or chains) are loose and blowing about in the wind. I call bullshit.
1 - Why did they change the name of ropes and chains to "sheets?"
2 - If the sheets are blowing about then so is the sail since I can't imagine the sheets blowing about by themselves.
3 - If this is so why didn't they say "three loose sheets in the wind?"

Nosir, doesn't make sense to me, I'm not buying 'er. Something's not "above board" here.

WOMBAT said...

WTG, braying jackass. Stand on the highest rooftop you can find and proclaim your ignorance at full volume.

A rope is a rope until it's on a sailboat at which point it becomes a line unless it's used to raise a sail at which point it becomes a halyard or to control a sail at which point it becomes a sheet. You might suspect that these terms of art are used to ensure clarity when directing your crew in high winds. The truth is that they are used to ensure that non-sailors won't infiltrate the ranks of their aquatic betters.

Evil_Klown said...


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