three sheets to the wind - Wiktionary, the free dictionary (2024)


  • 1 English
    • 1.1 Etymology
    • 1.2 Pronunciation
    • 1.3 Adjective
      • 1.3.1 Synonyms and related terms
    • 1.4 References



This phrase is derived in reference to sailing and sailing ships, and implies an individual "[u]nsteady from drink" (Smyth & Belcher, 1867; Martin, 2023). The "sheet" referred to is the nautical term for a rope (line) that controls the trim of a sail. The phrase was originally "three sheets in the wind", but also appears in its early examples with the number references "two" and "one", and is thought to derive from the fact that when "sheets [of a sailing vessel] are loose and blowing about in the wind[,] then the sails will flap" such that the boat lurches about "like a drunken sailor" (Martin, 2023). As of the last editing of Gary Martin's entry for the idiom, the phrase was most often presented as it is in the title (i.e., " [rather than 'in'] the wind"; Martin, 2023). The attribution of the expression's origin to the form with the preposition "in" is supported by a case of the phrase in print of the "two sheets" variation, in The Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury (1815, entry for 26 September 1813), which recounts the author's travels in the South, in the United States: "The tavernkeepers were kind and polite... [but] sometimes two sheets in the wind." (Martin, 2023). The "three sheets" variation is found in Pierce Egan's Real Life in London (1821), which says "Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind." (Martin, 2023). About the variations of the number appearing, Martin states,

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' (Martin, 2023).

A further example is Catherine Ward's "The Fisher's Daughter" (1824), in which "...Mr. Blust... instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure." (Martin, 2023).[1] Hence, "three sheets in/to the wind" describes an inebriated person (Smyth & Belcher, 1867; Martin, 2023) no longer in control, and—at least historically—lesser numbers implying lessened states of incapacity (Martin, 2023).





three sheets to the wind (not comparable)

  1. (idiomatic) Unsteady from drink.

    That late in the evening, he was three sheets to the wind and had long since stopped making sense.

Synonyms and related terms


  • four sheets to the wind
  • four sheets in the wind
  • three sheets in the wind
  • two sheets to the wind
  • two sheets in the wind
  • a sheet to the wind
  • a sheet in the wind
  • a sheet in the wind's eye
  • See also Thesaurus:drunk



  1. ^ According to another unsourced explanation,[Ed. note: Citation needed; original research.] a sail (a jib or any other type of sail) is said to be sheeted to the wind when it is set to backfill (set to the opposite side of the ship from normal use).[Ed. note: Citation needed.] A jib sail, for instance, is not normally kept in backfill position but, in a major storm when a ship must be kept “hove-to” (kept as much as possible in a standstill position and not being blown forward), the helm or wheel is lashed to windward,[Ed. note: Jargon.] and the jibs are sheeted to the windward side of the ship (sheeted to the wind); this causes the ship to hold sideways to the wind and waves to minimize the distance that the ship is blown off course during a storm.[Ed. note: Dubious, discuss.][Ed. note: Citation needed.] While hove-to, the ship is at the mercy of the wind and waves, and the crew has no control of it other than to hold it in place while it is rolled by waves. As a storm gets stronger, more backfill counterbalancing is required to hold the ship in position, and additional jibs are sheeted to the wind to maintain the ship at a standstill. When a ship has three jibs sheeted to the wind, it is being held sideways to wind and waves in strong storm conditions with very high waves, causing it to roll wildly from side to side with each wave, in continuous danger of capsizing.[Ed. note: Dubious, discuss.][Ed. note: Citation needed.]

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three sheets to the wind - Wiktionary, the free dictionary (2024)
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