Knock It Off, and Other Idioms in Historical Context


Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
"Three sheets to the wind," a phrase used to describe someone who is thoroughly drunk, dates back to the age of sail.

Derived from sailing ships. The 'sheet' in the phrase uses the nautical meaning, of a rope that controls the trim of sail. A sheet that is in the wind has come loose from its mooring and is flapping in the wind like a flag. A sail (normally jib sails) is said to be sheeted to the wind, when it is set to backfill (set to the opposite side of the ship from normal use).

A backfilled jib is normally a bad thing. But in a major storm when a ship is “hove to,” the helm is lashed to windward, and the jib(s) are sheeted to the windward side of the ship (sheeted to the wind) causing the ship to sit sideways to the wind and waves to minimize the distance the ship is blown off course during a storm. While hove to the ship is at the mercy of the wind and the crew has no control of the ship.

As the storm gets stronger, more force is required to hold the ship in position and additional jibs are sheeted to the wind to keep the ship balanced. A ship that has three jibs sheeted to the wind would be sitting sideways to the wind and waves in hurricane conditions, causing it roll wildly from side to side and in constant danger of rolling over with each wave.

Hence, a totally inebriated person is out of control and in danger of crashing, just like a ship three sheets to the wind.

three sheets to the wind - Wiktionary

"To the bitter end" and "learning the ropes" are also old idioms that date back to an era when ships were powered by the wind. Both are references to the ropes used in various duties on the ship. The bitter end was the end of a rope. which was secured to posts on the deck called bitts.
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Jan 2019
"Hoist by his own petard". I always knew it meant being undermined by something of your own making, but I never thought much more about it, "petard" for example being a totally unfamiliar word for me. I never knew it meant that you literally get blown into pieces by the explosive charge you're trying to set up. For some reason I always thought of it more akin to "lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps", the "hoist" being the operative word.
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Forum Staff
Apr 2010
T'Republic of Yorkshire
Oh good, I'm glad you caught that. Maybe he should try "kicks and giggles" instead, it seems more family friendly.
He can say whatever he likes as long as it follows forum policy.

If you have something to say, I suggest you say it rather than all these little barbed asides.


Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
"Beyond the Pale" - we've discussed this one several times on Historum. The Pale was the area controlled by the English in Ireland, and anything outside those borders was "beyond the Pale".
The Pale often coincided with a wooden palisade made of many "pales" of wood to mark the border.

There was also a Pale of Settlement in Russia--with the territories east of this Pale likewise being beyond the Pale.
Does anyone know where this Pale of Settlement was?

Okay, the maps in this article show that the eastern border of the Pale of Settlement was west of Moscow and St. Petersburg. So from the centers of Russia the Pale was in the west and one would have to travel west of it to get beyond the Pale. Or was the expression based on looking east from inside the Pale implying that a Jew east of it was out of bounds and beyond the Pale?
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