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

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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 1607.) The three words were used to establish claims of ownership to the three types of sea-borne, 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

Maine has its share of hoarders, and one of the joys of traveling the state is to browse the flotsam and jetsam of human enterprise without feeling the pull to bring (almost) any of it into your own home. James Sullivan, BostonGlobe.com, "Driven by one goal: To meander in Maine," 27 June 2019 Without funds to rebuild, officials decided to lay down rebar and pour a layer of concrete on top of the submerged fragment, turning the flotsam that had destroyed the pier into the pier itself. Rowan Moore Gerety, Harper's magazine, "Downstream," 10 June 2019 This hardy constitution allowed the lizards to creep across the islands of the Caribbean on accidental rafts of logs and flotsam. Quanta Magazine, "Lizard Stowaways Revise Principle of Ecology," 24 Sep. 2014 Eighteen days after closing the deal, Coolen learned the Raptors had acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs for DeMar DeRozan and assorted flotsam and jetsam. Gary Peterson, The Mercury News, "You want fries with that 3-pointer? How Raptors have cost McDonald’s $5.8 million in free fast food," 7 June 2019 But on lovely warm summer evenings, plants and animals are constantly shedding chemical flotsam, so the air is full of information about what’s nearby. Helen Czerski, WSJ, "Wintry Scents, Indoors and Out," 20 Dec. 2018 Nothing has surfaced recently, and studying the flotsam hasn’t produced much to go on. Barbara S. Peterson, Popular Mechanics, "Did the Pilot Do it? Final MH370 Report Revives Suspicions of Foul Play," 31 July 2018 All the best people are there—Curt Gowdy, Mary Baker Eddy, Fanny Farmer, and Buckminster Fuller—with plenty of flotsam. Town & Country, "Why is Boston is the Snobbiest City in the World?," 31 Jan. 2017 Alexander Dodge’s set, a jaunty playground of flotsam and jetsam, is strewn with cinema seats in a production that revels in the open theatricality of the play. Charles Mcnulty, latimes.com, "'The Tempest' at the Old Globe: Kate Burton casts a benevolent spell as Prospera," 26 June 2018

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.

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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

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Last Updated

12 Jul 2019

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Time Traveler for flotsam

The first known use of flotsam was circa 1607

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More Definitions for flotsam



English Language Learners Definition of flotsam

: floating pieces, parts, etc., from a ship that has been wrecked


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

Legal Definition of flotsam

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

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More from Merriam-Webster on flotsam

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for flotsam

Spanish Central: Translation of flotsam

Nglish: Translation of flotsam for Spanish Speakers

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