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What does "Three Sheets to the Wind" Mean?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Among the euphemisms and colorful expressions used to describe extreme intoxication or drunkenness, the phrase three sheets to the wind often stands out as a particularly curious one. Some people might ask why three sheets as opposed to one or two, as well as what sheets have to do with overindulgence in alcohol. The answer lies in nautical history.

The original expression was actually three sheets IN the wind, not TO the wind. In the sailing world, the word sheet actually refers to a rope, not the sail it controls, although some nautical sources suggest the word did once refer to the corners of a sail. Specifically, a sheet rope controls the horizontal movement of a sail, while other types of ropes keep the sails vertically or statically stable.

If one sheet becomes loose or is improperly secured, the sail may flap in the breeze but the ship will still be relatively steerable. The loss of two sheets will make the sail too loose to maintain a straight course, but the captain may be able to compensate by manipulating other sails. By the time three sheets are in the wind, the ship will flounder and wobble, much like a drunken sailor on shore leave. If four sheets are in the wind, the ship is virtually dead in the water.

This is why a person in a drunken stupor would be described accurately as being three sheets to the wind. He or she would be just as unstable and uncontrollable as a ship with three sheet ropes flapping uselessly in the breeze. The expression most likely started with sailors who described their own state of public intoxication according to the number of sheets they were missing.

Being one sheet in the wind meant being tipsy, but still able to perform essential job duties. Two sheets would have meant being clearly intoxicated, but still able to walk unassisted back to the ship. Being three sheets in the wind meant extreme drunkenness, accompanied by unsteadiness and an altered state of consciousness. The worst case scenario would be four sheets in the wind, which usually meant total unconsciousness and possible alcohol poisoning.

Considering that the nautical scale of public intoxication only reaches four sheets, becoming three sheets to the wind after a night of wine, women and song may not be the best plan in the world. Cutting back a sheet or two might be a safer bet for all concerned.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon969031 — On Sep 06, 2014

My gg grandfather sailed clippers from Scotland to the Barbary Coast during the gold rush. This came down through the family but I never thought much about it's earning. Now I know!

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jun 01, 2011

I love this saying because it is one of those expressions that refers to something very specific without every making a direct reference to it. If you never knew its meaning, who would ever make the connection between sheets in the wind and being drunk? It is like a strange bit of poetry that has worked its way into the language.

By Bertie68 — On Jun 01, 2011

My grandfather was a sailor from the time he was 16 years old. He used to tell stories about life on board and about the sails and the sheets. He explained to us kids, the origin of three sheets to the wind.

He said that the lines or sheets that controlled the sails would often become loose. Things would get quite rocky when three sheets loosened up.

My grandfather was not much of a drinker, but he would use the term to describe his sailor friends from the old country when they got stumbling drunk (the three sheets to the wind stage).

What a colorful era!

By BabaB — On Jun 01, 2011

It's surprising, but I have never heard the saying "Three sheets to the wind." I guess it's because I've never been around sailors very much or drunk people, for that matter.

The origin of this saying is very interesting. I assume it might be used mostly among sailors, even today.

There are so many other words that describe someone who is drunk, it probably isn't used too often by the majority of people.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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