4 sets of sheets and the wind

Apparently, 3 sheets means drunk and 4 means unconscious. I thought of this phrase this morning as I was making beds for guests.  I want to make sure that everything is shipshape, of course, especially because these are strangers and I don’t want them thinking poorly of me. (Yes, I sort of don’t care as much about family. They know me enough to decide that on other factors, certainly not on my housekeeping.) And the wind started blowing and I thought of the phrase.


Derived from sailing ships. The ‘sheet‘ in the phrase uses the nautical meaning of a rope that controls the trim of sail. If a sheet is loose, the sail flaps and doesn’t provide control for the ship. Having several sheets loose (“to the wind”) could cause the ship to rock about drunkenly. Before settling on the standard usage of “three sheets”, a scale used to be employed to rate the drunkenness of a person, with “one sheet” meaning slightly inebriated, and “four sheets” meaning unconscious. A better description relates this phrase to a square rigged ship sailing on the wind, on a bowline as they say. With the three windward sheets hauled all the way forward, in or to the wind, the ship will stagger like a drunken sailor as she meets the waves at an angle of 60 degrees to the beam. For loose sheets to have this effect there would have to be six loose sheets, three to windward and three to leeward. Also, unless all the upper sails secured to the yards were also loosed having the course sheets loose would not produce any change in a ship’s motion except to reduce its forward speed a bit.

There is so much we take for granted. In language. In life.

I have been going through the 6-plus years of letters, approximately 1 per week, over the past two weeks. I did start scanning some, but I figure it would take me pretty much forever to do all of them. And to what purpose? I haven’t read them in 40 years (the bulk of them start when I went off to college–in 1970!), so when will I read them again? And kids–nope, you’re not going to really want to bother reading them, either. They’re really pretty boring. Mostly, they’re thank-you’s to my parents for sending things to me (books, money, more money) and requests for other things (books, money, more money). Other than that, they’re an accounting of how much I was spending.

And oh yes, I do talk about what I’m studying, what movies I saw, where I went on weekends, etc.

And surprisingly enough, about lots of people, making me reach very far back into my memory banks to recall them, oftentimes with the banks showing up empty. And even Google couldn’t help with all of them. But maybe if I’ve lived this long without them, then I don’t need to remember them now.

What I’m really looking for is when I started writing in lower case.

haven’t found it yet. must have been somewhere between when I spent the summer before my senior year in high school at B.U. taking college courses and my freshman year at college, when it becomes all lowercase and oh i must have been so annoyingly so intense. (But I think that part came before and after.)

And so what does making beds have to do with reading sheets of paper?

At the least, we ourselves are the biggest mystery of it all.


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