Booze Related Expression Of The Week
Q. How does the term three sheets to the wind denote drunkenness?
A. We ignorant landlubbers might think that a sheet is a sail, but in traditional sailing-ship days, a sheet was actually a rope, particularly one attached to the bottom corner of a sail (it actually comes from an Old English term for the corner of a sail). The sheets were vital, since they trimmed the sail to the wind. If they ran loose, the sail would flutter about in the wind and the ship would wallow off its course out of control.
Extend this idea to sailors on shore leave, staggering back to the ship after a good night on the town, well tanked up. The irregular and uncertain locomotion of these jolly tars must have reminded onlookers of the way a ship moved in which the sheets were loose. Perhaps one loose sheet might not have been enough to get the image across, so the speakers borrowed the idea of a three-masted sailing ship with three sheets loose, so the saying became three sheets in the wind.
Our first written example comes from that recorder of low life, Pierce Egan, in his Real life in London of 1821. But it must surely be much older.
This version given, incidentally, is comparatively recent, since the older one (the only one given in the big Oxford English Dictionary) is three sheets in the wind. However, online searches show that the to version is now about ten times as common as the one containing in, so it may be that some day soon it will be the only one around. The version with to seems to be gaining ground because so many people think a sheet is a sail.