Three Sheets to the Wind

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 43

Tom Waits is a favorite singer-songwriter of mine, and a favorite song is Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen). The song is a bit of a downer. The titular Traubert is a lost sailor, too drunk and too broke to find his way out of the country he has found himself stranded in:

Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did.

I've got what I paid for now.

See you tomorrow. Hey, Frank, can I borrow,

a couple of bucks from you

to go Waltzing Mathilda, Waltzing Mathilda

You'll go Waltzing Mathilda with me.

The song is on Waits’ 1976 record Small Change, which I found in my college radio station’s record library in the early 90s. Loved the song, didn’t understand the title. Just what did four sheets to the wind actually mean?

The short answer - it means being drunk. The long answer, well, as I understand it (I am a landlubber through and through), the sheet was actually a rope, and having several of them tying sails "to the wind" meant turning a ship so that it was moving against a storm in an effort to not be blown off course. This was a dangerous maneuver, and one that sank many ships, but one that was deemed necessary to avoid losing time and cargo. That situation evolved into a metaphor for being awkward and prone to capsizing, as one is when one is drunk.

There's a long tradition of nautical English becoming colloquial English. A lot of everyday phrases like at loose ends and chock a block have made the jump from sailors’ lingo to everyday, landlubber, English so successfully that many people are unaware of their nautical origins. That these words and phrases would enter mainstream usage makes perfect sense given how English made its way around the world. (In ships, for good, bad, and ugly, English traveled by ship.) As sailors made their way from port to port, their manners and ways of communicating traveled with them. The surprise - to me, anyway - is just how persistent nautical English has been.

After all, it's not like we haven't replaced it - there are just as many phrases related to traveling by car and by plane as there are for traveling by ship. Then again, there are not nearly as many clever turns of phrase that have come from other industries and occupations. After all, we don't walk around shouting the towels have been folded! (I don't know what that would be in relation to, just that it seems to indicate that one event has stopped and it is now time for something new.)

I suspect that a lot of t.v. and technology lingo that has made its way into the mainstream will survive long after both the technology and cultures that spawned it are dead. (By culture I don't mean "nationality." Rather, I mean the culture of produced comedies and dramas shown by broadcast networks at a certain time. That culture is already moribund, dealt a mortal blow by YouTube, Netflix, and all the other myriad new media.) Words like film are shifting from concrete to abstract meanings and phrases like rewind the tape are already near meaningless. Another way to look at this might be Apple's battle with skeuomorphs - those little bits of outdated mental shortcuts that directly relate to technology no longer in use, like a quill feather representing a note-taking app - but that still convey the needed idea so well that it is easier and more understandable to use the outdated image than trying to create an icon with a more realistic one.

So, what about three sheets to the wind? It's managed to stick around long past both its original use and its literal meaning even though we have plenty of other metaphors for drunkenness just littering the entirety of the language. Honestly, I don’t know why it has stuck around and I doubt anyone else does either. Maybe it’s the poetic feel to it, maybe it’s the borrowed romance of the golden age of sail, maybe it just has a nice rhythm. But, no matter the reason, it is undeniable that it has stuck around.

Given that, I like the idea of using it as an icon. I like the idea of an alcohol-related social media app (I use Distiller) using a drunkenly listing schooner as an icon. Maybe that's the eventual fate of all idioms - to become a distantly remembered, fetishized image loosely connected to the modern-day, turned sideways to the waves and trying desperately not to stay afloat in the face of an angry sea. Bottoms up!



The Word Detective:

The “sheets” in the phrase are the lines (ropes) that hold a sail in place. If one of the “sheets” (from the Old English “sceata,” meaning the corner of a sail) comes loose, the sail flaps in the wind and causes the ship to lose power. If two sheets are loose and fluttering in the wind (or “to the wind”), you’re in major trouble, and “three sheets in the wind” means the ship is uncontrollable, reeling like a drunken sailor.

The Phrase Finder:

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."

The earliest manifestation of the phrase in print that I know of is the 'two sheets' version. That is found in  The Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, 1815, which recounts Asbury's travels through Kentucky. His entry for September 26th 1813 includes this:

The tavernkeepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be; they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire! (1000×100)

Notable Events of 1813:

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Drink, Drank, Drunk

Since we’re talking booze, here are three of my favorite songs about being three sheets to the wind:

Next time: Halcyon days. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

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