flot·​sam | \ ˈflät-səm How to pronounce flotsam (audio) \

Definition of flotsam

1 : floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo broadly : floating debris flotsam washed up by the tide
2a : a floating population (as of emigrants or castaways) human flotsam
b : miscellaneous or unimportant material a notebook filled with flotsam and jetsam
c : debris, remains the village … built on the flotsam of war— Stan Sesser

Flotsam and Jetsam Aren't Just Ursula's Eels

English speakers started using flotsam, jetsam, and lagan as legal terms in the 16th and 17th centuries (the earliest evidence of flotsam dates from around the early 1600s). The three words were used to establish claims of ownership to the three types of seaborne, vessel-originated goods they named. Flotsam was anything from a shipwreck (the word comes from Old French floter, meaning "to float"). Jetsam and lagan were items thrown overboard to lighten a ship. Lagan was distinguished from jetsam by having a buoy attached so the goods could be found if they sank. In the 19th century, when flotsam and jetsam took on extended meanings, they became synonyms, but they are still very often paired.

Examples of flotsam in a Sentence

flotsam washed up on the shore the dispirited family picked through the flotsam of their possessions after the hurricane, looking for anything that could be salvaged
Recent Examples on the Web All told, there are about 37,000 pieces of Gucci rarities, flotsam and priceless artifacts housed in the archives. Robin Givhan, Washington Post, 15 Nov. 2021 Logs and branches sail downstream on the current, forming snags that catch more flotsam, stray fishing bobbers and tangled tree stumps, soggy old baseball caps. Katie Arnold, Outside Online, 25 July 2014 Getting rid of the flotsam in your home was a virtuous activity even before the pandemic, when lockdowns gave millions of people plenty of time to take a hard look at their stuff. Lila Maclellan, Quartz, 31 Jan. 2022 And then it was put up for auction like a piece of celebrity flotsam. Washington Post, 26 Jan. 2022 The hurtling field of debris generated by that test, and earlier ones by China, the US and India, have shown that flotsam can remain in orbit and threaten spacecraft for years. Ramin Skibba, Wired, 1 Dec. 2021 But as such, antique stores and auction houses are also where the flotsam and jetsam of the worst aspects of material culture wash up — and continue to proliferate, even appreciating in value. Sophie Haigney, Curbed, 11 Nov. 2021 But as the sheetwebs spin silk to flee an inhospitable habitat, their webs are flotsam from an evacuation. Rebecca Giggs, The Atlantic, 9 Nov. 2021 The Phillies feature a few great players - Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, for example - and a bunch of flotsam. Tony Blengino, Forbes, 4 Nov. 2021 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'flotsam.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of flotsam

circa 1607, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for flotsam

Anglo-French floteson, from floter to float, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English flotian to float, flota ship

Learn More About flotsam

Time Traveler for flotsam

Time Traveler

The first known use of flotsam was circa 1607

See more words from the same year

Listen to Our Podcast About flotsam

Dictionary Entries Near flotsam




See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for flotsam

Last Updated

3 Apr 2022

Cite this Entry

“Flotsam.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flotsam. Accessed 25 May. 2022.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More Definitions for flotsam


flot·​sam | \ ˈflät-səm How to pronounce flotsam (audio) \

Legal Definition of flotsam

: floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo — compare jetsam

More from Merriam-Webster on flotsam

Nglish: Translation of flotsam for Spanish Speakers


Test Your Vocabulary

Eponyms: Words Named After People

Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!