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

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 Those trees were about the only thing that stopped the flotsam that shot down the water chute. azcentral, "Into the water," 15 May 2018 Flood waters also contain chemicals and will leave behind bathtub-like rings of mud in homes and all manner of flotsam and jetsam on streets and lawns as the Ohio River withdraws back into its banks. James Bruggers, The Courier-Journal, "You might not want to know how much sewage wastewater is mixed in floodwaters," 27 Feb. 2018 The improvement Darvish represents over the flotsam that will filter through their starting five could be all the difference between a playoff run or an October spent at home. Jon Tayler, SI.com, "Troubling Offseason Trend Continues as Cubs Snag Yu Darvish at Reduced Rate," 10 Feb. 2018 But even the films that, at the time, were written off as flotsam and jetsam . . Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader, "Film / History The Music Box kicks off a season of Michael Curtiz revivals with the silent melodrama A Million Bid," 20 Apr. 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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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

Comments on flotsam

What made you want to look up flotsam? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to speak slightingly about or to degrade

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