Three Sheets to the Wind: As Drunk as a Poorly Sailed Ship

I know I missed last week’s Bologna, but I’ll try to make up for it by giving you two this week.

Let’s get started.

Three sheets to the wind:

Like so many phrases, this one comes from the high seas.

Imagine you’re an officer on an Eighteenth Century warship. Your men are thirsty, so you have to go find some water. You take a trip to the galley, where one of the mess officers has just gotten a new barrel of water from the hold. The officer opens the barrel & reels away in disgust because it smells like cheese. It’s green with algae & gross with bacteria. Your men are going to be pissed. See, in the days before refridgeration, the water was stored in the hold without any way of preserving it. Things like bilge water would seep into the containers & taint it, causing it to go bad within weeks. There was one alternative, though…

Well, what was that alternative?

Alcohol. Maybe your men won’t be so pissed after all.


“Sir, the water’s turned again. I can’t give it to the men & they’re thirsty. What should I do?”
“Uh, I don’t care. Give them a whole lot of this.”

Yes, that’s right; sailors were given rum & beer in place of water. It was called a rum ration. The rule wasn’t abolished until 1970, & only then because they found that, “regular intakes of alcohol would lead to unsteady hands when working machinery.” That was the understatment of the… well millennium, considering this had been practiced for centuries. Imagine being a sailor in 1700, with your “unsteady hands” trying to work & fire a 1 ton cannon in the heat of battle, after downing a tumbler full of rum.

Originally, the expression was, “Three  sheets in the wind,” & it started as part of a secret drunk-scale that sailors invented to describe their shipmates’ levels of intoxication. Designed to keep officers ignorant of drunk sailors (because even though they supplied you with the alcohol, you could still be punished for being drunk on duty), the scale ranged from, “A sheet in the wind’s eye,” which meant the sailor was a little buzzed, up to, “Three sheets in the wind.” You all know what that last one means. Eventually,  the “in” was switched to “to” & it became the expression you all  know.

What is a sheet & why is it in the wind? Well, keep on reading because I’m about to tell you.
I bet all you  landlubbers assume that the word, “sheets” refers to the sails. You’d be wrong. The word is actually a reference to the lines which were tied to the bottom corners of the sails to keep them in place. (The word comes from the Old English word scaeta, meaning “lower corner of the sail.”)


This is a diagram of part of a ship’s mast. Note the sheet which attaches the upper topsail to the yardarm.
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia user PeteVerdon.

If one of the sheets were to become loose, it would shake in the wind, causing the sails to move. This, in turn, would cause the ship to jerk around & roll. If more were loose, the roll would progressively get worse. Sailors equated this to the stumbling of a drunk person.

Three sheets to the wind = three crucial parts of the rigging loose & flapping in the wind, causing the ship to sway & roll, just like a drunk sailor. The ordinary sailor could freely talk about his wasted friend & the officers would think they were talking about routine problems with sailing. Genius.

Now you know. You’re welcome.


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Filed under Etymology

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