three sheets to the wind

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Derived from sailing ships. The 'sheet' in the phrase uses the nautical meaning, of a rope controlling the trim of sail. A sail (usually a jib sail) is said to be sheeted to the wind, when it is set to backfill (set to the opposite side of the ship from normal use)

A jib sail is not normally kept in backfill position. But in a major storm when a ship must be kept “hove-to” (kept as much as possible in a standstill position and not being blown forward) the helm or wheel is lashed to windward, and the jib(s) are sheeted to the windward side of the ship (sheeted to the wind). This causes the ship to hold sideways to the wind and waves to minimize the distance the ship is blown off course during a storm. While hove-to, the ship is at the mercy of the wind and waves it is being held against, and the crew has no control of the ship, other than to hold it in place while it is rolled by waves.

As a storm gets stronger, more backfill counterbalancing is required to hold the ship in position and additional jibs are sheeted to the wind to maintain the ship at a standstill. When a ship has three jibs sheeted to the wind, it is being held sideways to wind and waves in strong storm conditions with very high waves, causing it to roll wildly from side to side with each wave, in continuous danger of rolling over or capsizing.

Hence 'three sheets to the wind' has been used to describe a highly inebriated person who is no longer in control, and is in danger of upending and falling over.

(Sheets to the wind, should not be confused with the idea of sheets in the wind, the latter which refers simply to sheets that have come loose from their moorings and are flapping in the wind like a flag - a condition which does not cause a ship to dangerously roll from side to side, as when one or more of its sheets are being held in a backfill windward position in a storm.)


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three sheets to the wind (not comparable)

  1. (idiomatic) Drunk.
    That late in the evening, he was three sheets to the wind and had long since stopped making sense.



  • Smyth, William Henry; Belcher, Edward (1867). The sailor’s word-book: An alphabetical digest of nautical terms, including some more especially military and scientific ... as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc.. London: Blackie and Son. p. 680