flot·​sam ˈflät-səm How to pronounce flotsam (audio)
: floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo
broadly : floating debris
flotsam washed up by the tide
: a floating population (as of emigrants or castaways)
human flotsam
: miscellaneous or unimportant material
a notebook filled with flotsam and jetsam
: debris, remains
the village … built on the flotsam of warStan Sesser

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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 Here and there, compounds cobbled together out of single-wides, tarps, pallets and other flotsam, ringed by wire fencing, hunkered in the sagebrush. Smithsonian Magazine, 17 Aug. 2023 For Kevin Nunez and his son Nathan, Native Americans who have long family history locked within the rugged and geologically active mountains, volunteering to help remove the flotsam and jetsam of tourists is a solemn duty. Louis Sahagún, Los Angeles Times, 1 Aug. 2023 These infinitesimal bits of genetic flotsam divide quickly, creating blood cells (red, white, and platelets) at a rate of 500 billion a day. Ben Paynter, Men's Health, 26 June 2023 Red tape has been repurposed before; the Archives’ Philadelphia outpost has at least twice, most recently in 2014, collected red tape (among other flotsam) and turned it over to artists. Danny Freedman, Washington Post, 16 Jan. 2023 For all their nets and buoys and random flotsam, for all the elaborate ceramic mugs and baroque garnishes and angry totemic faces, what’s very often forgotten about tiki is just how delicious, layered, and mature the cocktails can be. Jason O'Bryan, Robb Report, 24 June 2023 With each advance in our knowledge, our entire existence retreats from any possible pinnacle, seemingly reduced to flotsam adrift at the universe’s margins. Mario Livio, Scientific American, 19 Apr. 2023 But his true filip on this basic pattern was to range much farther afield for bits of fearful flotsam from which to create a mosaic of impending catastrophe. Ana Marie Cox, The New Republic, 5 May 2023 In the rough, cold sea, Mr. Mulki, a 22-year-old Syrian asylum seeker, held his 6-year-old brother Sultan with one arm and a piece of flotsam with the other. Margherita Stancati, WSJ, 2 Apr. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'flotsam.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


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

First Known Use

circa 1607, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of flotsam was circa 1607


Dictionary Entries Near flotsam

Cite this Entry

“Flotsam.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flotsam. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

Kids Definition


flot·​sam ˈflät-səm How to pronounce flotsam (audio)
: floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo

Legal Definition


flot·​sam ˈflät-səm How to pronounce flotsam (audio)
: floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo compare jetsam

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