Which Word Wednesday: Flotsam vs. Jetsam

By May 18, 2011 language No Comments

In a previous Which Word Wednesday match up—when we looked at vim vs. vigor—I mentioned that some word pairs become so attached that we rarely use one without the other. I listed flotsam and jetsam as one such pair, and today we will take a closer look at this duo.

First of all, these words have a certain, Je ne sais quoi . . . a certain old-school quality about them. They are just interesting words to say aloud—the sort of words that get stuck in my brain on repeat mode. Do any of you have that with certain words?

Let’s move on to the definitions from the Oxford American Dictionary:

flotsam :: noun
the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on or washed up by the sea

jetsam :: noun
unwanted material or goods that have been thrown overboard from a ship and washed ashore, esp. material that has been discarded to lighten the vessel

So flotsam refers to what’s floating about after a shipwreck, and jetsam is what’s floating about to lighten the load in the hope of avoiding a shipwreck. Chronologically speaking then, jetsam comes first, then flotsam.

In The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language, Ron Evans tells us that flotsam “is related in meaning and origin to float,” and “jetsam describes any cargo or equipment jettisoned aboard during a storm or an emergency.”1

And that provides a great memory hook. Use flotsam to describe debris floating in the ocean. Use jetsam to describe items jettisoned (thrown or tossed) from a ship—such items may or may not float (if they float, those items are now flotsam).

These nautical terms are more commonly used today in a figurative sense. The OAD tells us that when used together, the phrase flotsam and jetsam refers to “people or things that have been rejected and are regarded as worthless.” It could refer to the debris after a natural disaster or the worn items collected after cleaning out your closets, piled up for the mission donation box.

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What’s my WWW verdict? I’m no seafarer, so my opportunities are slim for observing flotsam or jetsam in the literal sense. The figurative meaning that joins the two words, however, is useful to many non-sailor types—that’s why flotsam and jetsam are codependent. (Now that I know why they are always together, I can give them some grace.)

What’s your verdict? Were you aware that flotsam and jetsam together form the figurative sense? Do find the words flotsam and jetsam fun to say aloud? Do share in the comments.

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Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

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Sources
1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 100.

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