If you were on a ship in the early 1800s, you might notice that the three corners of each sail were bound down with ropes. These ropes were called "sheets," and they served to keep the ship steady in the wind. When the sheets came loose, the vessel would zig-zag to and fro, meandering around the sea like a drunken sailor.
In fact, around 1821 people realized that this might be the best possible way to describe drunken sailors—or drunken anyone, for that matter. It was like they were "three sheets in the wind." (Similarly, "two sheets in the wind" was for someone who was a little bit less drunk, and "a sheet or so" meant they were just tipsy.)
The above comes from the delightful new book Words in Time and Place by language expert David Crystal. In it, he traces the history of synonyms for many common words, including, gloriously, those of "drunk."
The grandfather of "drunk," "fordrunken," is a Middle English word that appears in Chaucer's tales. From there, though, the way we started to describe drunk people became much more entertaining—and head-scratching. Here are a few highlights from Crystal's far more extensive list:
1564: Tippled—For tippler, the name for a tavern-keeper
1611: Bumpsy—Inspired by the "staggering gait" of the inebriated
1627: High—Before Brits discovered weed, they sometimes referred to drunk people this way.
1770: Groggy—Having had too much grog, the sailor's drink of rum and water
1811: Lushy—From the slang "lush," meaning any kind of beer or liquor
1897: Up the pole—Another nautical term, probably referring to a mast
1917: Blotto—As in, soaks up alcohol like blotting paper soaks up ink
1923: Poggled—Has its origins in the Hindi word pagal, for "madman"
1943: Plonked—From "plonk," a facetious pronunciation of vin blanc, or white wine, this term became popular in Australia before spreading to other English-speaking countries.
1957: Honkers—Among its many possible roots is the slang verb "honk," or vomit.
1968: Wasted—You can thank the hippies for this one, which, according to Crystal, "suggests that the mind or body of the drunkard is analogous to land which has been devastated or ruined."
Is there a unifying theme? A way humankind has consistently tried to explain the rambling and stumbling and impropriety of the wiffled and plotzed among us?
Not really, Crystal writes, but "there seems to be a universal trend to avoid stating the obvious." People have been drinking since the Neolithic period, and the cornucopia of slang terms we've developed suggests that we've been trying to minimize the damage ever since. Someone who is "buzzed" is probably fine; someone who "had too much to drink" is the subject of a deposition or an ER visit. So we come up with cutesy terms and nautical innuendoes, and we keep on swilling the night away.