three sheets to the wind — (2024)

13 June 2022

To be three sheets to (or in) the wind is to be drunk. The metaphor is a nautical one, but one that many landlubbers (and some slang dictionaries who probably should know better) misunderstand.

Those not accustomed to sailboats might understandably think a sheet is a sail, but that’s not the case. In nautical jargon a sheet is a rope attached to the bottom corners of a sail and used to control the sail. By tightening or slackening the sheet, the sailor can control speed and direction of the boat. To sail with a sheet loose or in the wind is bad seamanship and portends a loss of control over the boat. With several sheets in the wind, the boat is uncontrollable; it “staggers,” sways, and veers like a drunken man.

The phrase appears as early as 1807, with the number being two sheets and the sense being directionless, inconsistent rather than drunk. From a political commentary that appeared in New York’s Public Advertiser on 17 December 1807:

Cheetham is a democrat, and you a fed. I acknowledge that he has tew sheets in the wind and the others fluttering, as we say at Stamford; he has shewn a kind of political coquettry that is not very pleasant to the staunch republicans; but I don’t believe he is really in love with federalism, yet.

Here, there are two sheets loose in the wind, with a third one being slack and quivering. The tew spelling is a stylistic choice; elsewhere the writer uses dewe for do.

(Note: in this period, the dominant U.S. political parties were the Democratic-Republicans, which would evolve into the present-day Democratic party, and the Federalists, which would fade away, being replaced by the Whigs, which would be replaced by the present-day Republican party. The democrats and the staunch republicans in this quotation are the same party. Cheetham is disenchanted with his own party, the Democratic-Republicans, but hasn’t crossed the aisle and joined the Federalists.)

The drunk sense is in place by 1812. From Baltimore’s Weekly Register of 2 May of that year:

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, upon a liquor which this great man found excellent.

Shivering here means fraying, coming to pieces. Three sheets are loose, and a fourth is about to go.

The phrase is recorded in Britain the following year. From an 1813 poem about a horse by Scottish poet John Gerrond, again with only two sheets:

When thou was watered, corned, and trimmed,
An’ me just twa sheets in the wind,
Thou then wad up and down hill pinned,
With merry canter,
Nae whip, but just to guide the rein,
Thou fast wad scamper.

A humorous story about a housewife trying to hide her lover from her husband and a visiting clergyman was printed in many North American newspapers in 1817. From the Ladies Literary Museum; or Weekly Repository of 26 January of that year:

The woman opened the door and received her husband with as much tenderness as surprise. He was about three sheets in the wind, that is to say a little intoxicated, and began to talk loud and swear.

The wide distribution of this story may account, at least in part, for the phrase entering general use.

That same year, the phrase is used in a book advertisem*nt, also printed widely. The use of capsized in the ad as well points back to the nautical origin. From the newspaper Genius of Liberty of Leesburg, Virginia of 26 August 1817:

Parent’s Attend!
Moral Looking Glasses, for Youth

By M.L. Weems, Author of the life of Washington

1. The Drunkards Looking Glass.

Showing “forty curious capers’ which the drunkard cuts in the different stages of his disease, as—1. when he has only a “drop in his eye”—2. When he is “half shaved” or “three sheets in the wind”—3. When he is getting a “little on the staggers, or so”—4 & 5. and so on, till he is “quite capsized” or “fairly knocked under the table with the dogs and can stick to the floor without the trouble of holding on.”
Price 25 cts.

By 1817 the slang phrase was firmly established, and it appears in a slang dictionary in 1823. John Badco*ck’s Slang, published under the pseudonym Jon Bee, is the first of a line of dictionaries to misinterpret the metaphor:

Three-sheets in the wind.—Naval, but naturalized ashore, and means drunk, but capable of going along—like a ship which has three sheets braced—main, mizen, and foresail.

Badco*ck would not be the last to misunderstand the phrase’s underlying metaphor.

Discuss this post


Advertisem*nt. The Genius of Liberty (Leesburg, Virginia), 26 August 1817, 1. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.

“Another Communication.” Public Advertiser (New York), 17 December 1807, 2. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.

Bee, Jon. (pseudonym of John Badco*ck) Slang. A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton. London: T. Hughes, 1823, 215. HathiTrust Digital Archive.

Gerrond, John. “R—— D——s Blind Mare.” Poetical and Prose Works. Leith: Archibald Allardice, 1813, 147. HathiTrust Digital Archive.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2022, s.v. three sheets in the wind, phr.

“Lorenzo and the Paramours.” Ladies Literary Museum; or Weekly Repository, 26 January 1817, 215. ProQuest Magazines.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s.v. sheet, n.2, wind, n.1.

“Travellers in America.” Weekly Register (Baltimore), 2 May 1812, 143. Gale Primary Sources: American Historical Periodicals from the American Antiquarian Society.

Tréguer, Pascal. “Origin of the Phrase ‘Three Sheets in the Wind’ (Drunk).”, 25 July 2018.

Photo credit: Adam Hunt, 2020. Public domain photo.

three sheets to the wind — (2024)
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