As the festive period gets well underway, there will be several ways in which people describe their drunken state. A study conducted by slang expert Jonathan Green found almost 100,000 words to do with being drunk. Most of these words have not been used enough to enter the dictionaries. In dictionaries of slang, drunkenness comes third in the total number of words to describe it, only beaten by crime and drugs. People can be sloshed, mullered, canned, hammered, loaded, buzzed, slaughtered, blitzed, smashed, wrecked and muntered. But why so many?
The role of slang has always been to disguise and to keep others guessing. Its first role is to be a code that keeps those in the know, in, and those who are not, out. As soon as that code is cracked, a new word is needed. What’s more, drinking has always been synonymous with secrecy. In the eighteenth century, for example, people saw a strong need to tiptoe around gin, creating a mixture of terms such as ‘diddle’, ‘sweetstuff’, ‘tittery’ (because gin makes you titter).
‘Three sheets to the wind’ comes from the early nineteenth century and is a nautical metaphor. The phrase originally read ‘three sheets in the wind’: the sheet in question harks back to the days of sailing when a rope or chain was attached to the lower corners of the sail to alter its direction. If the sheets are loose it will make the boat flail irrationally, mimicking the actions of a drunk. Moreover, sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just 'one sheet in the wind' or 'a sheet in the wind's eye'. An example appears in the novel The Fisher's Daughter, by Catherine Ward from 1824:
‘Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.’