During a recent catch-up, a close friend pointed out another person in the restaurant and commented that it was a little early for him to be two sheets to the wind. I was amused – not because 7pm was indeed early for someone to be drunk in a restaurant – but because I had always believed the expression was three sheets to the wind. As discussions like this are an enduring part of our friendship, we debated the point for longer than we needed to before eventually consulting our phones.
Not surprisingly, the correct number of sheets isn’t immediately obvious. Neither is the origin of the phrase.
Most sources claim the phrase is nautical. However, sheets do not refer to sails but rather to the ropes that control the tightness (aka trim) of the sails. A sheet that is in the wind has come loose from its mooring and is flapping in the wind. Notice that the phrase is actually “in the wind” and not “to the wind.”
The more sheets in the wind, the more unbalanced the ship would be, especially during a storm. The analogy to consuming alcohol is obvious. There are examples from the early 1800’s that one sheet in the wind is being a little tipsy while three sheets was closer to falling over:
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.
As such, the man in the restaurant may indeed have been two sheets in the wind but on his way to three. The debate is a tie.
Except this 1994 NY Times opinion piece complicates the situation. The author claims the expression refers not to sailboats but rather to windmills. The number of vanes (also called blades or sails) on a windmill need to be even or it will be out of balance during a strong wind, causing the whole structure to shudder – not unlike a staggering drunk. From this point of view, only three sheets in the wind makes sense and the debate win goes to me.
My friend didn’t accept this alternative theory and the discussion continued; fittingly over another drink. Despite a little more research after that night, I can find no conclusive evidence of whether the “right” number is two, three, or even four sheets.
Perhaps the only fair way to end this discussion is to quote Bob Dylan:
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
How many sheets do you think there are?
Three. There’s no other answer