THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND
Our colleagues at CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything, have been hard at work and, to their great pleasure, they can add this phrase to their list. ‘Three sheets to the wind’ is indeed a seafaring expression.
To understand this phrase we need to enter the arcane world of nautical terminology. Sailors’ language is, unsurprisingly, all at sea and many supposed derivations have to go by the board. Don’t be taken aback to hear that sheets aren’t sails, as landlubbers might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. If three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.
The phrase is these days more often given as ‘three sheets to the wind’, rather than the original ‘three sheets in the wind’. The earliest printed citation that I can find is in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, 1821:
“Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.”
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, 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.”
Robert Louis Stevenson was as instrumental in inventing the imagery of ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ piracy as his countryman and contemporary Sir Walter Scott was in inventing the tartan and shortbread ‘Bonnie Scotland’. Stevenson used the ‘tipsy’ version of the phrase in Treasure Island, 1883 – the book that gave us ‘X marks the spot’, ‘shiver me timbers’ and the archetypal one-legged, parrot-carrying pirate, Long John Silver. He gave Silver the line:
“Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober; “
May 20, 2015
May 5, 2015
April 18, 2015
Visiting with a neighbor yesterday she remarked she had a “third cousin” working on a project for her and as we walked away the question arose among us, ‘what is this third cousin’ business?
Many other languages have ways to distinguish father’s brother, mother’s brother, and more complete ways to sort these family tree branches. Here’s a great illustration that shows the story we were trying to comprehend on the walk home:
April 9, 2015
February 25, 2015
August 21, 2010
July 21, 2010
May 15, 2009
Can you tie these knots above? 1: Overhand Knot 2: Figure-eight Knot 3: Reef (Square) Knot 4: Sheet (Becket) Bend 5: Carrick Bend 6: Bowline 7: Clove Hitch 8: Timber Hitch 9: Taut-line Hitch 10: Sheepshank
If not take a look at a twenty year old article from the Mother Earth News that will teach you some rope terms you likely have never known.
April 2, 2009
CUT OF YOUR JIB
Meaning: One’s general appearance and demeanor.
The jib of a sailing ship is a triangular sail set between the foretopmast head and the jib boom. Some ships had more than one jib sail. Each country had its own style of sail and so the nationality of a sailing ship, and a sailor’s consequent opinion of it, could be determined from the jib.
The phrase became used in an idiomatic way during the 19th century. Sir Walter Scott used to it in St. Ronan’s Well, 1824:
“If she disliked what the sailor calls the cut of their jib.”
There may be an allusion between the triangular shape of noses and jibs in the figurative use of this phrase, but this isn’t authenticated.
August 14, 2008
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
In difficulty, between two dangerous alternatives.
The phrase was originally ‘Between the Devil and the deep sea’. The sea turned blue much later and the phrase became well-known via the title of a popular song. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea was written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, and recorded by Cab Calloway in 1931, although that version of the phrase may have been circulating earlier.
What’s the source of the original phrase? Well, we would really like to know. CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything, would have us believe that it has a nautical origin (well, they would wouldn’t they?). In her book, ‘When a loose cannon flogs a dead horse there’s the devil to pay‘, Olivia Isil unambiguously attributes a nautical origin to the phrase.
Set against that there’s the explanation that this is from the usual meaning of Devil, i.e. the supreme spirit of evil. If it’s that Devil we are talking about then the origin is straightforward – the Devil is bad and falling in the deep sea is bad, so when caught between the two we would be in difficulty.
People who like that explanation can point back to Greek mythology for an earlier version of the idea of being caught between evil and the sea. Homer’s Odyssey refers to Odysseus being caught between Scylla (a six-headed monster) and Charybdis (a whirlpool).
To explain the nautical theory we’ll need to define some sailing terminology. That’s always dangerous ground for landlubbers and usually results in some horny-handed sailing type writing in to say that we don’t know our scuppers from our square-knots, but here goes anyway…
“Devil – the seam which margins the waterways on a ship’s hull”.
This definition is from Henry Smyth’s Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, 1867. That definition wasn’t entirely clear to me, but a correspondent who describes himself as ‘an engineer and vessel constructor’, clarified it this way:
“Devil – the seam between the deck planking and the topmost plank of the ship’s side”.
This seam would need to be watertight and would need filling (caulking) from time to time. On a ship at sea this would presumably require a sailor to be suspended over the side, or at least stand at the very edge of the deck. Either way it is easy to see how that might be described as ‘between the devil and the deep sea’.
Incidentally, another term for filling a seam is paying. Those that like nautical origins also give this as the source for the Devil to pay, although the evidence is against them on that one.
The first recorded citation of ‘the Devil and the deep sea’ in print is in Robert Monro’s His expedition with the worthy Scots regiment called Mac-keyes, 1637:
“I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea.”
The seafaring theory is plausible at least, but does it really hold water? Two factors count against it. Firstly, it doesn’t really explain the meaning. The devil on a ship isn’t inherently dangerous. Secondly, does the phrase pre-date the nautical term ‘devil’? We’ve no evidence to show the word in that context until over two hundred years after the first sighting of the phrase.
CANOE don’t quite convince with this one. On balance it seems wise to stay on dry land and stick with the Devil we know.