Etymology
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sheet (n.1)

[length of cloth] Old English sciete (West Saxon), scete (Mercian) "length of cloth, covering, napkin, towel, shroud," from Proto-Germanic *skautjon-, from *skauta- "project" (source also of Old Norse skaut, Gothic skauts "seam, hem of a garment;" Dutch schoot; German Schoß "bosom, lap"), from PIE root *skeud- "to shoot, chase, throw."

By mid-13c. as "large square or rectangular piece of linen or cotton spread over a bed next to the sleeper." The sense of "oblong or square piece of paper," especially one suitable for writing or printing on, is recorded by c. 1500; that of "any broad, flat, relatively thin surface" (of metal, open water, etc.) is from 1590s. Of a continuous sweep of falling rain from 1690s. Meaning "a newspaper" is recorded by 1749.

Sheet lightning, caused by cloud reflection, is attested from 1794; sheet music is from 1857. Between the sheets "in bed" (usually with sexual overtones) is attested from 1590s (played upon in "Much Ado"); to be white as a sheet is from 1751. The first element in sheet-anchor (late 15c.), one used only in emergencies, appears to be a different word, of unknown origin, perhaps with some connection to shoot (v.) on the notion of being "shot out."

sheet (n.2)

"rope fastened to one of the lower corners of a sail to control it," late 13c., shete, shortened from Old English sceatline "sheet-line," from sceata "lower part of sail," originally "piece of cloth," from same Proto-Germanic source as sheet (n.1). Compare Old Norse skaut, Dutch schoot, German Schote "rope fastened to a sail."

The rope sense of sheet probably is that in the phrase three sheets to the wind "drunk and disorganized," which is recorded by 1812 (in the form three sheets in the wind), an image of a sloop-rigged sailboat whose three sheet-lines have slipped through the blocks are lost to the wind, thus "out of control." Apparently there was an early 19c. informal drunkenness scale in use among sailors and involving one, two, and three sheets, three signifying the highest degree of inebriation; there is a two sheets in the wind from 1813.

It must not be wondered at that the poor, untutored, savage Kentuckyan got "more than two thirds drunk," that is, as the sailors term it, three sheets in the wind and the fourth shivering, before the dinner was ended. [Niles' Weekly Register, May 2, 1812]

updated on August 14, 2022

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