Three sheets to the wind
Now that the holiday season is well and truly behind us, some of us, no doubt, can recall that we over-indulged a little bit and may even, on occasion, have been three sheets to the wind. By this we mean very drunk but where did this phrase come from?
It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that it is nautical but what is fascinating is that the sheets referred to are not sails, as I had assumed, but ropes or chains, fixed to the lower corners of sails and used to fasten them in place. Technically, there is only one sheet to a sail, any other ropes fastened to it used for adjusting it to take account of wind direction being known as lines. Strictly, therefore, the expression would describe a three-masted ship where all its sails were loosely tied. The consequence of loose sails blowing about in the wind is that the sails would flap and make the vessel lurch around, rather like an inebriated matelot.
The next surprise, to me at least, is that the original phrase seems to have been three sheets in the wind. One of the very earliest examples in print appeared in Niles’ Weekly Register of 2nd May 1812 and recorded Englishman Thomas Ashe’s experiences in Kentucky where the hospitality was generous and the liquor strong. He noted, “it must not be wondered at that the poor, untutored, savage Kentuckyan got more than two-thirds drunk, that is, as the sailors term it, three sheets in the wind and the fourth shivering, before the dinner was ended.”
From this citation we can perhaps deduce two things; first, that it was a phrase that peppered the language of many a salty sea dog and that there was a gradation of sheets to describe the varying states of inebriation. That the latter may be the case is illustrated by an observation from the Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, published in 1815, for the 26th September 1813 when the worthy gentleman found himself in Kentucky too; “the tavern keepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be: they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!”
And providing further evidence is this passage from Catherine Ward’s novel, The Fisher’s Daughter, published in 1824; “Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.” And Robert Louis Stevenson has the one sheet variant in Treasure Island (1883), Long John Silver saying, “Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober; “
Another early example, again American, appeared in the edition of the Genius of Liberty for 26th August 1817; “he was about three sheets in the wind, that is to say a little intoxicated and began to talk loud and swear.” The gloss perhaps suggests the phrase was not so well known in Virginia. It was not until 1821 that the phrase appeared this side of the Atlantic in Pierce Egan’s Real Life of London; “Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.” That the earliest examples are American by origin doesn’t necessarily mean the phrase was an Americanism. Ashe and Astbury were English by origin and the phrase was part of nautical argot.
By 1823 the phrase was sufficiently well established to earn an entry in a lexicon, John Bee’s Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton and the Varieties of Life. There he defines it as “naval, but naturalized ashore, and means drunk, but capable of going along – like a ship which has three sheets braced – main, mizzen, and foresail.” Interestingly, he makes the mistake of confusing sheet for a sail.
To the wind didn’t appear in print until 1894 in the New Year’s Day edition of the Pennsylvania State University Free Lance; “..he espied two old friends approaching, one of them three sheets to the wind and the other piloting him..” Why the change is unclear aand from a nautical perspective, they are opposite ways of proceeding. Whatever the reason, this is the version that has stuck.
After all that, I need a drink. Perhaps I will soon be one sheet in the wind!