Defintion: To be be very inebriated.
Variants: Three sheets in the wind, to have a sheet in the wind
Origin: On a nautical vessel, the sheet is a rope attached to the lower corner of a square sail or a fore-and-aft sail. Depending on how taut or loose the line is, it controls how much wind the sail is able to capture. If the sheet is let go, causing the sail to flap out of control, setting the vessel on an erratic course, the sheet is said to be “in the wind.” The nautical expression for someone who is tipsy (mildly drunk) is said “to have a sheet in the wind.” Thus, by extension, the landlubber variant of the phrase, “three sheets to the wind” is someone who is really inebriated — plastered or dead drunk. Charles Dickens provides a simple definition is Dombey and Son (1846-48): “Caption Cuttle looking, candle in hand, at Bunsby more attentively, perceived that he was three sheets in the wind, or in plain words, drunk.”
The English language has thousands of synonyms for “drunk.” Lexicographer, Stuart Flexner, in his book I Hear America Talking, believes that since people get drunk for various reasons, affecting them in different way, the English language has simply developed synonyms to reflect the wide gamut of feelings and reactions. The first to record all the colorful terms for drunkenness was Benjamin Franklin, who included 228 terms in the Drinker’s Dictionary published in 1737. Apparently the colonists were so prone to inebriation, they required their own dictionary to know what they should be called by their spouses and friends. Several other editors and writers created their own expanded lists over the years; however, lexicographer Paul Dickson, bested them all, when he set the Guinness Book of World Records for most synonyms for a word in 1983, listing 2,660 terms for drunkenness. Later in 2009, he published Drunk: the Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary in 2006, listing a staggering (pun intended) 2,964 synonyms for drunk. Word lovers throughout the world — even the priggish editors of the OED — celebrated by getting bombed, loaded, trashed, hammered, soused, buzzed, blottered, marinated, liquefied, wasted, smashed … You get the point.
For further reading: Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary by Paul Dickson, Melville House (2006).
Ship to Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea by Peter Jeans, McGraw Hill (2004)
I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases by Stuart Flexner, Reinhold (1976)