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What are Flotsam and Jetsam?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Flotsam, jetsam, and rarely-heard-from lagan are special types of marine debris which originate on ships. Although many people have forgotten the distinction between these terms, the definitions of flotsam, jetsam, and lagan are carefully spelled out in maritime law, as the rules of salvage apply to these types of debris. People more generally use the phrase “flotsam and jetsam” to describe errata and miscellaneous items, usually with the implication that the items have no value.

When material is washed overboard or lost in a shipwreck, it is known as flotsam. Flotsam has been lost, in other words, involuntarily. Jetsam, on the other hand, is cargo which has been deliberately thrown off or jettisoned, a not uncommon practice in the days of sail when people would discard cargo to lighten a ship. Lagan, sometimes called ligan, is cargo which is jettisoned with a marker indicating that the owner plans to return to retrieve it.

As a general rule, flotsam and jetsam can be freely collected and salvaged by anyone, although if a shipping company puts in a claim, a salvager may be forced to forfeit the material. Lagan, on the other hand, is the property of the shipping company, and people may not salvage it. If a company wants to abandon cargo or a ship without the intent of recovery, it is designated a derelict by being left without a marker. Sometimes, derelict ships can be repaired and refurbished by people with the time and money to do so.

Flotsam and jetsam often wash up on shore, since ocean currents tend to push things towards the shoreline. Some researchers actually specialize in collecting ocean debris from shorelines all over the world to keep track of the kind of objects floating in the ocean, and the paths taken by ocean debris after it enters the water. Some beachcombers enjoy seeking out flotsam and jetsam for collections of objects or salvaged material which will be later sold.

In the sense of “miscellaneous items,” the term “flotsam and jetsam” has been used since the mid-1800s. In the 1900s, people also began to use the term to refer to discarded and forgotten humanity, such as homeless people inhabiting an urban core. In fact, real flotsam and jetsam can sometimes be quite valuable, as evidenced by the profits raked in by salvage companies and the high-powered lawsuits which sometimes surround competing claims over flotsam and jetsam.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By everetra — On Oct 12, 2011

@NathanG - I am more familiar with the literal usage of the term. For example, I think of empty soda bottles and things like that out on the waves of the ocean.

I suppose these items would qualify, although I think that the article is referring to items of greater importance.

I like watching television shows where explorers go deep sea diving to look for the areas where they think a ship has been wrecked. Sometimes they stumble upon a treasure; the ship itself, or parts of its oars or masts or other parts of jetsam and flotsam.

This is the stuff of treasure hunting, and it’s always thrilling to watch. If I understand the article correctly, I guess these discoveries would belong to the explorers, unless the government made a direct claim on the wreckage.

By NathanG — On Oct 11, 2011

I am familiar with the flotsam and jetsam definition as it’s been used in a more metaphoric sense, not only to describe homeless people, but other people who seemingly lead lives without a purpose.

In other words, it's the froth of a meaningless existence. People will talk about the flotsam and jetsam of our material things, to suggest that these are things without any real value, just floating along aimlessly out on the ocean of life.

I kind of like that usage of the word, as sad as its implications may be. I can’t say that I’ve had much experience with literal flotsam and jetsam. I usually just ignore it when I see it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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