Where does this term come from?
This is an old idiom which was born from English seafarers. In sailing terms a “sheet” is actually not a sail, as you might suspect. It’s actually a rope or sometimes a chain which is attached to the bottom corner of a sail to keep it moveable. These ropes or chains were necessary on 3-masted ships to keep the sails trim. According to our fine friends at Wikipedia keeping a sail trim means:
Sail trim – Trimming sails is a large topic. Simply put, however, a sail should be pulled in until it fills with wind, but no further than the point where the front edge of the sail (the luff) is exactly in line with the wind. Let it out until it starts to flap, and then pull it in until it stops.
You can see by the diagram, if the sheets aren’t tied down and left to flap about, you have an unstable vessel at the mercy of the winds wallowing hopelessly and uncontrollably off course. An inebriated sailor coming back from an adventurous shore-leave staggering and weaving his way back to the ship must have reminded his sailing buddies of a ship with loose sheets. Since most ships were 3-masted, one loose sheet probably wasn’t too bad, but 3 loose sheets would have been disaster.
The first appearance of the term “three sheets to the wind” in literature occurred in 1821, although it’s suspected the term has been around much longer.
Pierce Egan, in his Real Life in London wrote:
“Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in (to) the wind.”
“Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober.”
The same novel also gave us “shiver me timbers” and “X marks the spot.”
So remember, if you find yourself three sheets to the wind, don’t drive.