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Tag: Idioms

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.