flotsam and jetsam


the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water. Compare jetsam, lagan.
material or refuse floating on water.
useless or unimportant items; odds and ends.
a vagrant, penniless population: the flotsam of the city slums in medieval Europe.
Also called flotsam and jetsam (for defs 3, 4).

1600–10; < Anglo-French floteson, derivative of floter to float < Old English flotian

flotsam, jetsam.
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World English Dictionary
flotsam (ˈflɒtsəm)
1.  jetsam Compare lagan wreckage from a ship found floating
2.  useless or discarded objects; odds and ends (esp in the phrase flotsam and jetsam)
3.  vagrants
[C16: from Anglo-French floteson, from floter to float]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Word Origin & History

c.1600, from Anglo-Fr. floteson, from O.Fr. flotaison "a floating," from floter "to float" (of Gmc. origin) + -aison, from L. -ation(em). Spelled flotsen till mid-19c. when it altered, perhaps under influence of many English words in -some. In British law, flotsam are goods found floating on the sea
as a consequence of a shipwreck or action of wind or waves; jetsam are things cast out of a ship in danger of being wrecked, and afterward washed ashore, or things cast ashore by the sailors. Whatever sinks is lagan.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases

flotsam and jetsam

  1. Discarded odds and ends, as in Most of our things have been moved to the new house, but there's still some flotsam and jetsam to sort. [Mid-1800s]

  2. Destitute, homeless individuals, as in The mayor was concerned about the flotsam and jetsam of the inner city. [Second half of 1900s] Both words originated in 17th-century sailing terminology. Flotsam literally meant "wreckage or cargo that remains afloat after a ship has sunk." Jetsam meant "goods thrown overboard from a ship in danger of sinking in order to give it more buoyancy." Both literal meanings remain current, although the distinction between them is often forgotten.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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