Q&A: Flotsam and jetsam

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have floating ideas…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the difference between “flotsam” and “jetsam”?

A: Good question!

Q: They’re usually seen together, so is it like “bits and pieces” or does each have a different meaning?

A: They aren’t always seen together and they have different origin stories. “Jetsam” is a little older – first appearing in English in the 1560s – initially as “jottsome”. This was described as “the act of throwing goods overboard to lighten a ship”.

Q: “Jottsome” sounds like a brand of notebook.

A: It came from the Middle English “jetteson” (and Old French “getaison” before that) – somehow all the way back to the Latin “iactare” – to throw.

Q: Wait, that first one looks a lot like “jettison”. Doesn’t that ALSO mean to throw things overboard?

A: Well spotted! You see, while “jetsam” originally described the act of throwing stuff, by 1600 it instead became the name for the goods themselves. This meant there needed to be a NEW word to describe doing the throwing. It didn’t come along until the 1800s, but when it did, that word was “jettison”. For example, “the pilot jettisoned the cargo”.

Q: So back to our notebook. We went from “jottsome” to “jetsam”?

A: Yep. English was going through a lot of growing pains during this time. It actually stopped off at “jetsome” and “jetson” along the way.

Q: “Meet George Jetson! His boy Elroy…”

A: Haha, not quite flying cars. Only floating ships. Which leads us to “flotsam”.

Q: Nice segue. So “flotsam” is clearly related to floating?

A: It certainly is. The word turned up as “flotsen” around 1600, from the Anglo-French word “floteson” and Old French “flotaison” before that.

Q: So, I’m guessing that’s where the word “flotation” also comes from?

A: Another correct guess, although it arrived much later – in the late 1700s.

Q: Wait, is it “flotation” or “floatation”? I think I’ve seen both.

A: Most dictionaries prefer the shorter “flotation”, however both spellings are acceptable.

Q: Whatever floats your boat, right?

A: Indeed. Anyway, it would take until the 1800s before we got the spelling “flotsam” – which also influenced the final spelling of “jetsam”.

Q: Okay, so we still have two words with similar meanings. How do you tell them apart?

A: It’s all about intent.

Q: The items are in a tent? Sounds intense.

A: Don’t be silly. For all intents and purposes, the items are floating on the ocean – but identifying what is flotsam and what is jetsam is all to do with HOW they got there.

Q: I’m going to guess that flotsam is from a boat and jetsam is from a plane? Oh wait, planes weren’t around in the 1600s. Okay, I give up.

A: Nice try, but yeah, wrong. It’s a legal definition in maritime law that defines “flotsam” as goods found floating on the sea as a consequence of a shipwreck or action of wind or waves, while “jetsam” is defined as things cast out of a ship in danger of being wrecked, and afterward washed ashore, or things cast ashore by the sailors.

Q: Wow, so if you CHOOSE to chuck it overboard, it’s jetsam?

A: That’s right – you jettisoned it.

Q: But if the ship is wrecked or hit by a rogue wave, the stuff that unintentionally ends up floating about is flotsam?

A: Exactly!

Q: What about the stuff that sinks to the bottom of the ocean?

A: That has names too – it’s called “lagan” if you mean to recover it at some point, perhaps by attaching a buoy.

Q: “His buoy Elroy!”

A: Cute. Anyway, alternatively something on the bottom of the ocean that you DON’T plan to recover is legally called “derelict”. You don’t hear about these ones as much, but for legal purposes, they all need names.

Q: Legal as in who the stuff belongs to when found?

A: Exactly!

Q: And here I was thinking that “flotsam and jetsam” was just a fun throwaway phrase for a bunch of useless stuff. Instead, we’ve waded into maritime law and salvage missions.

A: Well, you’re not entirely wrong – by the 1860s, the term “flotsam and jetsam” began to be used figuratively as a term for “odds and ends” – and it’s more likely to be how you use it today.

Q: I guess finding a bunch of random items in your junk drawer is more common than a shipwreck these days.

A: Exactly.

Q: While we’re here, is there any way to tell the moray eel characters Flotsam and Jetsam apart in Disney’s 1989 film, The Little Mermaid?

A: Flotsam’s left eye is yellow, while with Jetsam it’s the right.

Q: Brilliant, thanks. And what about in space?

A: Eels cannot survive in space.

Q: No, I mean is stuff floating about in space also called “flotsam and jetsam”?

A: No. Those terms only refer to things in water or washed ashore. For stuff in space, it gets the charming title of “space junk”. There are more than 27,000 pieces of debris orbiting around Earth right now.

Q: So to recap – figuratively, “flotsam and jetsam” can be any collection of trivial, jumbled items. But literally AND legally speaking, flotsam and jetsam are items that have either been lost or discarded at sea, respectively.

A: Exactly! So in Titanic, the wooden debris that Rose floats on and famously doesn’t share with Jack – that’s flotsam. Yet the jewel that old Rose throws overboard at the very end – that’s jetsam.

Q: Hey! Spoilers!

A: It’s Titanic, come on. You know the boat sinks too, right?

Q: Gah! Now there’s NO point watching it!

A: Okay, it’s time to jettison this conversation…

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