this is a nautical phrase.Paradoxically,sheets on a masted ship actually refer to the ropes that control the sails, not the sails themselves. each sail was tethered to four ropes(sheets).If one or more of the sheets was not secured, the sail would become useless or unmanageable.if you were three sheets to the wind,you only had one left.this was quite a precarious situation.Four sheets to the wind and you were most probably going to lose the sail and shhets.I found this in both books that I own on terms that have come from the maritime world.thanks,jim cookn.sa
This expression is very interesting and involves some colorful etymology. The first response is correct, but I found quite a bit of additional information, which I would like to share. Each source offered some unique points (and some minor contradictions) and rather than excerpting various bits and pieces, I’m just going to give them in their entirety.
The phrase "three sheets to the wind" does indeed come from the world of seafaring, specifically sailing ships. The "sheets" in the phrase are not sails, but ropes. Of course, the first thing one learns about ropes once aboard ship is that they are never called "ropes." They are named according to their particular function: halyards (which move or hold things, usually sails, vertically), sheets (which move or hold things horizontally), and lines (which hold things in a static position). The sheets in this case are those ropes which hold the sails in place. If one sheet is loose, the sail will flap in the wind and the ship's progress will be unsteady. Two sheets loose ("in the wind"), and you have a major problem, and with "three sheets in the wind," the ship reels like a drunken sailor.
The specific number of "three sheets" in the phrase wasn't random, by the way -- there was, at one time, a sort of rating system of inebriation among sailors, where "one sheet" meant "tipsy" and so on, up to "four sheets in the wind," meaning to be completely unconscious.
The usual sense of ‘sheet’ is 'a large, thin, rectangular piece of fabric used as bedding', with a host of subsenses. This word is from Old English, and is related to similar words in other Germanic languages.
The word ‘sheet’ in our expression is the nautical ‘sheet,’ meaning 'a rope, chain, etc. used to secure or adjust the sail of a ship'. This word is also ultimately from Old English, a shortening of ‘sheet-line,’ that is, 'sail-rope', with the ‘sheet’ the same as our above ‘sheet’ in the sense 'a sail'.
The original form of the expression was ‘three sheets in the wind’ (not "to"), which literally means 'with the sail completely unsecured', and thus flapping about, and with the boat itself thus unsteady. (Sails can be secured with varying numbers of sheets, but the square-rigged boats used at the time when the expression became current usually had three sheets.) There are many other nautical expressions for drunkenness, such as "with decks awash," "half seas over," and "over the bay," but few of them have spread so thoroughly to the mainstream.
‘Three sheets in the wind’ is first found in the early 1820s in both British and American sources. There are many other variants ("a sheet in the wind," meaning 'somewhat drunk', etc.), and the most common form today is ‘three.’
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins
THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND: ‘Sheets’ aren’t sails in nautical use; neither are they bed coverings. A sheet is a rope or a chain attached to the lower corner of a sail that is used for shortening and extending it. When all three sheet are on a three-sailed vessel (such as a ketch) are loosened, allowed to run free, the sails flap and flutter in the wind. Thus sailors would say a person slightly drunk had ‘one sheet to the wind’ and that someone who could barely navigate had ‘three sheets to the wind.’ The expression is first recorded in Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast’ (1840).
Professor Albert Huetteman of University of Massachusetts offers another possible derivation if ‘three sheets to the wind’: “On Nantucket Island . . . we took the local tour bus, which stopped at the Nantucket windmill. The elderly gentleman tour guide told us a story of how the windmill keeper’s job was to install canvas sheets on the four arms of the windmill when the wind conditions were right. If he drank too much, however, he might only install three sheets, thus giving rise to the phrase, ‘three sheets to the wind.’”
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
THREE SHEETS IN/TO THE WIND adjective [mid-19th century and still in use]: drunk, also as ‘two/four/six sheets to the wind’; abbreviated as ‘three sheets’ etc (cf. ‘afloat’). [naval imagery ((only to non-naval people and technically incorrect)) a ship carrying ‘three sheets (sails to the wind’ is ‘top-heavy’]
Some other colorful nautical synonyms for ‘three sheets to the wind’ (drunk) are: afloat; all at sea; awash; buoyant; carrying a load; decks-awash; half seas over, half the bay over; have one’s back teeth afloat; have one’s back teeth awash; needing a reef taken in; overseas; over the bay.
Ken G – November 29, 2002
An interesting quote "that he was three sheets in the wind, or in plain words, drunk" is found in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Chapter XXXIX. The novel was published in monthly installments beginning in October 1846.
Edwin D. Maberly
Professor of Finance
University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand