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I recently read the story "The Sign of the Four", by Arthur Conan Doyle. In it, one particular phrase stood out:

...rubbing their sleeves across their beards after their morning wet.

I believe it refers to them taking a drink or something. Could it refer to a morning dip perhaps?

Also, where does this phrase originate from? When was it first used,etc.

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

As jwpat7 explained quite well, it refers to a drink of alcohol.

The OED's earliest reference for wet as a noun with the meaning

A drink or draught of some alcoholic beverage; a glass of liquor.

is listed as:

1719 in T. D'Urfey Wit & Mirth V. 125 At Noon he gets up for a wet and to Dine.

I'd imagine it is derived from the expression to wet one's whistle, meaning to drink, which appears as early as the 14th century:

c1386 Chaucer Reeve's Tale 235 So was hir ioly whistle wel y-wet.

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Slightly more context makes the meaning clear:

At the square-topped corner public-houses business was just beginning, and rough-looking men were emerging, rubbing their sleeves across their beards after their morning wet.

A public-house, or public house, is "an establishment licensed to sell alcoholic beverages", that is, a tavern, bar, saloon or local ("One's nearest or regularly frequented public house or bar"). That is, the sentence refers to men coming out of a bar after having a pint or two of beer, ale, stout, etc.

I have no information about the origin of the phrase or its first use.

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