Nautical Term/Phrase Wednesday: Three Sheets to the Wind

Image available through Creative Commons at Flickr, Photo by author heremiet

From the spectacular website of Gary Martin.

Meaning: Very drunk.

[First] sheets aren’t sails, as landlubbers might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. If three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.

The phrase is these days more often given as ‘three sheets to the wind’, rather than the original ‘three sheets in the wind’. The earliest printed citation that I can find is in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, 1821:

“Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.”

Sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just ‘one sheet in the wind’, or ‘a sheet in the wind’s eye’. An example appears in the novel The Fisher’s Daughter, by Catherine Ward, 1824:

“Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr. Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.”

Robert Louis Stevenson was as instrumental in inventing the imagery of ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ piracy as his countryman and contemporary Sir Walter Scott was in inventing the tartan and shortbread ‘Bonnie Scotland’. Stevenson used the ‘tipsy’ version of the phrase in Treasure Island, 1883 – the book that gave us ‘X marks the spot’, ‘shiver me timbers’ and the archetypal one-legged, parrot-carrying pirate, Long John Silver. He gave Silver the line:

“Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober; “

Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

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