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Flotsam and Jetsam: Meaning, origin, and examples

Most English speakers have heard the idiom flotsam and jetsam to describe a discarded or eclectic collection of objects. It makes us imagine jumbled, broken, or useless objects, unwanted and left behind. However, few know the meaning and origin of these interesting words.

Definitions of flotsam and jetsam

Flotsam and jetsam are nautical terms, and like their current inseparability, they came into English at roughly the same time. They describe things you might find floating on the surface of the water when a ship has been in trouble. Flotsam (ˈflɒtsəm) is what is left floating at the top of the water or washed ashore when a ship sinks; jetsam (ˈdʒɛtsəm) is anything that sailors throw overboard (jettison), either as rubbish or in their attempts to stay afloat when sinking. Flotsam can also be used more generally to describe anything floating on water or washed up on shore, especially garbage, even though these items are unlikely to be the result of a shipwreck. Similarly, jetsam might describe anything discarded or unwanted, although its usage alone is very rare. Both are used metaphorically to describe discarded and unwanted objects. I’ll show you some usage examples below.

Origins of flotsam and jetsam

Jetsam appeared in a recognisable form in the English language slightly before flotsam. First recorded around the mid-16th century as jottsome, it came from Middle English jetteson, in turn from Old French getaison centuries earlier. Flotsam is recorded shortly afterwards, at around 1600, usually spelled floteson or flotsen, via Norman French from Old French flotaison. The modern spelling regularised to flotsam only in the mid-19th century. This was probably due to its association with jetsam; the near-inescapable pairing of the two as flotsam and jetsam originated at around the same time, and is sometimes attributed to Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in his diary in 1814 while visiting a Scottish island:

“The goods and chattels of the inhabitants are all said to savor of Flotsome and Jetsome, as the floating wreck and that which has been driven ashore are severally called.”

We can’t be sure now if Scott had misunderstood the meaning of the inhabitants of the island of Sanda, or if he accurately recorded how the words were in use there at the time, but you probably noticed that his definition of Jetsome as ‘that which has been driven ashore’ is rather different to ours. I am inclined to believe that Scott, like the vast majority of modern English speakers, simply didn’t know what the word means.

You can find more information about the etymology of the individual words here and here, and the history of the two together here.

Usage of flotsam and jetsam

Flotsam and jetsam are what writers call collocated words: they appear so often together that mentioning one will immediately make the listener or reader think of the other. You will almost always find them together, and in strict order as flotsam and jetsam. The best way to show their usage is through examples.

“I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.” — Martin Luther King Jr.Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1964

“In the end, these people are not just victims. They’re not just the flotsam and jetsam driven hither and thither. They are our brothers and sisters.” — All Things Considered, 2015

“Within a matter of hours the camp was no more, as the steel jaws of the disposal trucks crunched up the tents and the other flotsam and jetsam of protest life.” — BBC News, 2014

You can also find flotsam used separately sometimes, but jetsam is almost never found on its own, except in proper names for bands, companies, and the like. It’s so rare I had to dig deep for examples!

“Change is legitimate and inevitable, for our language is a mighty river, picking up silt and flotsam here and discarding it there, but growing ever wider and richer.” — Robert MacNeil, New York Times, 1986

“There is an estimated 100m tonnes of plastic flotsam in the Pacific Gyre, where ocean currents cause it to accumulate. The floating dump covers an area one and a half times the size of the US.” — The Guardian, 2010

“The tie industry is undergoing a ritual fashion cleansing, and department store racks nationwide are dripping with the jetsam. The prime offender: those bright floral ties seen on men everywhere.” — New York Times, 1992

Musing thus, the other day,
In a bight within a bay,
I’d a sudden thought that yet some
Purpose for this piece of jetsom [sic]
Might be found; and straight supplied it. — from Arthur Quiller-Couch, “Jetsom“, Wandering Heath, 1895

Related words and legal uses

Flotsam and jetsam are things that float at the top of the water. However, there are other two other terms of interest not just to linguists, but to salvagers and maritime lawyers: lagan and derelict.

Under maritime law, there are four kinds of salvage at sea: flotsam, jetsam, lagan, and derelict. Flotsam and jetsam are defined in their usual way. Flotsam is floating cargo from shipwrecks or lost overboard, and jetsam is floating cargo that was intentionally jettisoned. These are usually the property of the finder, unless the original owner can establish a clear case for ownership.

Lagan (ˈlæɡən), in general usage, means property has sunk to the sea floor, rather than floating on top. In the law of the sea, it specifically describes goods on the seafloor whose ownership is claimed or obvious: a sunken wreck, the cargo held within a sunken wreck, or cargo sunk but attached to a buoy or other floating marker that lays clear claim of ownership. These items are expected to be returned to their owner if recovered by a salvager.

The derelict wreck of the Titanic. Credit NOAA/IFE/URI 2004.
The derelict wreck of the Titanic. Credit NOAA/IFE/URI 2004.

The last word, derelict (ˈdɛɹəlɪkt), is also interesting. Likely to be understood by most English speakers, it describes anything that has been unused and unmaintained for so long that it’s no longer usable or safe. When describing ships, it may mean an abandoned ship still afloat but in unusably poor condition, or a ship fully or partially sunken underwater. In the law of the sea, it describes goods or wrecks that have sunk to the seafloor for which hope of recovery is abandoned. In the unusual event that it is salvaged, it may become lagan if ownership is obvious, or it may become the property of the salvager.

Anything you read here really float your boat or make your heart sink? Let me know in the comments below!

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