Stupid Question ™
Dec. 2, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why does “three sheets to the wind” mean being drunk? Can you be only one or two sheets to the wind?
A: “Three sheets to the wind” is an American variation of the original British phrase “three sheets in the wind.”
Sailor slang for “drunk,” it goes back to the term “in the wind” (or more inclusively, “all in the wind”). This term, dating to the 1600s, refers to having one or more sails set parallel to the wind (or “in the wind”). As a result, wind rushes by both sides of the sails, causing them to shake and shiver useless and dangerously. (A sailing ship is steered by setting the sails somewhat perpendicular to the wind.)
In an 1818 citation, we find “in the wind” also referring to drunkenness—presumably because a drunk also shakes and shivers uselessly and dangerously.
The elaboration “three sheets in the wind” dates to 1821. In nautical parlance, a sheet is a rope attached to the lower corner of a sail, used to alter and maintain the sail’s position relative to the wind. The phrase seems to be referring to pulling the sheets (or letting them go slack) so the sails are in the wind, resulting in the aforementioned problems.
There’s much confusion as to why three sheets are specified, as no single sail has more than two sheets and few (if any) ships had only three sails. Since we know the phrase is just an elaboration of “in the wind,” and there apparently was no specific three-sheet grouping on old ships, I think it’s safe to assume “three sheets” just sounded colorful and refers to nothing in particular.
Nonetheless, the “three” has led many sources to wild guessing and brought undue attention to the “sheet” part of the phrase—most dictionaries, in fact, list the phrase under “sheet,” though from what we know of its etymology it would be more appropriately listed under “wind.” Then again, most sources also don’t mention the original “in the wind” at all, it having become archaic.
It is possible to have “a sheet in the wind” or a “a sheet or two in the wind,” meaning “tipsy”—such puns on “three sheets to the wind” date to 1832 and come mostly from literary, rather than nautical, sources.
Inevitably, you can now go three sheets to the wind on a drink called Three Sheets to the Wind: a shot glass containing one-third Jagermeister, one-third Rumpleminze and one-third tequila.
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An update on the Nov. 18 column in which I failed to determine the origin of “Chinese water torture”:
The prose-poem “Ex Oblivione,” written in 1920-21 by horror author H.P. Lovecraft, contains this reference: “…the ugly trifles of existence began to drive me to madness like the small drops of water that torturers let fall ceaselessly upon one spot of their victim’s body…”
So the idea was in wide circulation by 1920, and is here cited without reference to the Chinese. This seems to strengthen the theory that the idea is derived from an Inquisition torture, with “Chinese” added later to make it sound exotic.