three sheets to the wind

The phrase three sheets to (or in) the wind means to be drunk. The sheet in question is a reference to a rope tied to a corner of a sail that is used to control it. To have a sheet loose in the wind is bad seamanship, to have three loose means you are not capable of controlling the boat. The phrase dates to at least 1821; from Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London of that year:

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

The phrase is often misinterpreted with sheet meaning the sail itself. The sailing and common senses of sheet are easily confused and the misinterpretation goes back a ways. From Edward Howard’s 1836 Rattlin The Reefer:

As the seamen say, they all had got a cloth in the wind—the captain two or three.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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