What is the origin of "three sheets to the wind"?
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The original wording of this phrase was ". . . in the wind," as mentioned in the above-referenced phrases.org.uk entry. The entry cites Pierce Egan's character's descripton of a drunk cobbler in Real Life in London, 1821,
as possibly the earliest use in print. This is reiterated by many other phrase-origin sites.
Also mentioned is the "sliding scale" of drunkeness coined by sailors whereby an inebriated person could be anywhere from one to four "sheets in the wind." I decided to take these possible variations of the phrase and plug them in to Google's Ngram Viewer. I found an earlier instance of the phrase in print.
While this may not answer the ultimate question of the phrase's origin, it does show a use of the phrase several years earlier than previously reported and from an American source rather than British (although Asbury was born in England).
Update 3/16/11: Gary Martin has now updated his entry on this phrase at The Phrase Finder to include the Asbury citation.
First, it means “being inebriated” or “completely drunk”.
Second, regarding etymology, urbandictionary.com says:
Apparently, variants exist, as the New Oxford American Dictionary has:
Regarding the etymology of sheet in this meaning, NOAD agains comes to the rescue:
Sheet is the nautical term that refers to the rope used to secure a ship's sail.
I think there is a significant difference between "to" the wind and "in" the wind. "To" meaning toward the wind (nautical) and "in" literally meaning out in the wind (windmill).