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 Find a list of materials to prepare ahead of time (think egg crates, tin cans and other around-the-house flotsam) on the website or Facebook page. Emily Matchar, Smithsonian Magazine, "The Best Places for Your Kids to Learn Real Life Skills Online," 4 May 2020 Bari’s port is, most poetically, the unchosen destination of flotsam that reach a shore. Giulia Barcaro, National Geographic, "Meet the local legends of this Italian town by the sea," 3 Apr. 2019 Ćuk proposed that a similar event could have shredded an entire planet into ribbon-like strands, and that 'Oumuamua was a piece of flotsam from one such Armageddon. Charlie Wood, Popular Science, "A new ’Oumuamua theory could mean many more interstellar visitors are headed our way," 14 Apr. 2020 The idea that the smell of plastic flotsam might lure animals to their doom first emerged in 2016. The Economist, "Ocean pollution Plastic rubbish smells good to turtles," 12 Mar. 2020 Then, early last year, the spacecraft streaked by Arrokoth, a bit of flotsam drifting through the Kuiper Belt—the diffuse ring of primitive icy bodies beyond Neptune, of which Pluto is the largest member. Lee Billings, Scientific American, "New Horizons May Have Solved Planet Formation Cold Case," 20 Feb. 2020 The baggage: Gidget, that nun, B-movie trucker flotsam, Burt Reynolds, the Oscar speech (No. 2). Washington Post, "2019 Kennedy Center Honors: ‘Sesame Street,’ Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Tilson Thomas," 6 Dec. 2019 Where did a time go when quirky, eccentric, free people might drift up like so much beautiful flotsam on a fragile sandbar 60 miles out in the Atlantic? New York Times, "Recapturing a Lost World in ‘Provincetown’," 14 Aug. 2019 Its characters are lonely, frustrated, dispirited fragments of suburban flotsam who keep bobbing up against one another, hoping to connect. Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic, "Porn Infiltrates Suburbia in Mrs. Fletcher," 28 Oct. 2019

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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Time Traveler for flotsam

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The first known use of flotsam was circa 1607

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Last Updated

30 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Flotsam.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flotsam. Accessed 31 May. 2020.

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More Definitions for flotsam


How to pronounce flotsam (audio)

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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