There's a lot of slang associated with drinking. Three sheets to the wind. Hair of the dog. On the wagon. We all know them, we all use them, but most of us don't know where they came from or what they really mean. Read on, and you'll be the smartest person at the bar.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. "Wards, wards, wards." -Drunk Hamlet
As long as we're talking about booze, why not start with booze? The word first appeared in Middle Dutch, way back in the 1300s, as bûsen, which meant "to drink to excess." There was also the Old High German word bausen, which meant "to bulge or billow." These may have been born out of buise (Dutch), meaning a large drinking vessel. The word made its way over to Middle English in the 1500s as both a verb (to booze) and a noun (to drink some booze). It wasn't until the 1700s that it was spelled phonetically, as we do today.
Some people think the word derived from a Philadelphia distiller in the 1800s named E.G. Booz. These people are wrong, and now you can shame them. Try to be nice about it.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first documented use of hangover (or hang-over) was in 1894, and it meant "a survival, a thing left over from before." That sounds about right. The alcohol (or alcohol sickness) hangs over from the night before. Get it?
Tie One On
This is an odd one, and the exact definition is the subject of some debate. There's some consensus, though, that the "one" being tied on refers to a bun. "Tie one on" is an abbreviated version of the British expression "tie a bun on." Indeed, for a hundred years or so before the 1970s, "a bun" was slang for getting drunk. The problem is that nobody knows how buns got into the equation in the first place.
The best theory going is that it was a part of an old school sobriety test. As in, "Walk while balancing this bun on your head to prove you're sober." If the person was really drunk, they'd have to "tie a bun on" in order to pass the test. Which, as far as sobriety tests go, sounds pretty hilarious.
Three Sheets to the Wind
There are two schools of thought on here. The more popular origin story is that it's a sailing term. The sheet isn't the sail itself (as sailors know), but rather it's the rope that controls the trim of the sail. If all three sheets (on a three-sail rig) are released and allowed to go slack, the sail will luff, meaning they'll flap about sloppily, the boat will lose speed, and hence control. Kinda like a drunk person.
"To the wind" doesn't make a ton of sense in this instance, but it seems that the saying may have evolved from "three sheets in the wind," which is better. And that confusion is pretty easily explained by the fact that it's drunk people saying it.
The second origin story makes a little more sense. This goes back to the days of Dutch windmills. The mills generally had four blades that were really just frames. They didn't catch much wind on their own, but when a miller wanted to grind grain he would put material over the frames of the blades, so that the wind would propel them. They could put sheets on two opposing blades (if the wind was strong) or on all four blades (if the wind was weaker) and have a nice balance. However, if the miller only got three sheets on before it started spinning, it would be lopsided. As the unbalanced blades spun it would cause the entire mill to sway back and forth, much like drunk person.
This explains why it's almost always "three sheets." That said, "two sheets" is the first known written appearance (1815).
Didn't know that was a booze-specific word, didja? Grog was a drink the British navy consumed in the 1700s. Generally it was rum watered down with water or beer. Drink too much of it at night, and you wake up all tired and out of it, or groggy. It was, essentially, a synonym for hangover.
On the Wagon
This is an extremely contentious one. There's been an email circulating for the last few years that claims it has something to do with ye olde British prisoners being allowed one last drink before being carted off (in a wagon) to the gallows. This is completely bogus. The phrase is also frequently (and falsely) attributed to the work of the Salvation Army (which would round up New York City drunks on a wagon and bring them to "salvation"), but the written usage pre-dates that work. While the actual definition is still the subject of debate, the origin story with the most support is as follows.
The first written record of the phrase was in 1901 in Alice Caldwell Rice's Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Actually, it was the British variation of the phrase "on the water cart." The quote in question: "I wanted to git him some whisky, but he shuck his head. 'I'm on the water-cart," in a nod to the temperance movement.
The water cart was a wagon that was dragged down dirt roads in rural towns, spraying water, and thus keeping the dust down. Men to declared they were on the wagon ("wagon" was substituted for "cart"), promised that they were sticking to water from now on (or, possibly, that they vowed they would rather drink nasty horse-cart water than drink booze). When they "fell off the wagon" it meant they had slipped and gone back to their old boozin' ways.
Hair of the Dog
This one makes more sense in the context of the full version: "hair of the dog that bit you." It refers to drinking a bit of booze in the morning to relieve the withdrawal symptoms associated with a hangover. We've certainly seen weirder cures. First documented usage seems to be from John Heywood's 1546 text A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue: