While most of us may relate to them as the twin eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, these two very interesting words originate from marine debris and are related to the items that were once on a ship but are now in the ocean.
Flotsam is debris or rubbish that is found floating around in the ocean that got there because of a ship accident or wreck. It was never deliberately thrown into the ocean from the ship. The word flotsam comes from the French word floter which simply means to float. The rule of finder’s keepers does not apply to flotsam found by a passerby – the debris still belongs to the owners of the ship that met with the unfortunate accident that cause the flotsam.
Jetsam on the other hand is debris that was deliberately thrown from the ship into the ocean – either to lighten the ship before an accident or for some other reason. The important distinction is that it was deliberately thrown. The word is derived from the word jettison which means to throw something from a plane or a ship. Since they chose to throw the jetsam, the rule of finders keepers does apply in this case – and a passerby that comes across the jetsam can keep it.
The two words are most often used together and have metaphorically come to mean odds and ends, or miscellaneous items – as in –“the war refugees carried the flotsam and jetsam of their life on their backs as they walked across the continent searching for a safe haven.”
(Images courtesy, NGA DC, Portland Museum of Art, National Museuem of Norway, & Tate Gallery UK).