A mystery has gripped Biscayne Bay since New Years, when a 650-pound baby grand piano appeared on a sandbar above the waves. Was this out-of-place instrument flotsam, the work of pirates? Was this lagan from bumbling musical smugglers?
Full disclosure: This riddle has in fact been solved, and we’ll reveal the enigmatic source in a minute. There is a greater puzzle here that will last longer than this tale of a beached piano: the classic and confusing words “flotsam” and “jetsam.” Please prolong your suspense for a moment more in order to learn the precise meanings of these funky terms that you’ve invariably heard but likely don’t fully comprehend.
Flotsam is an Anglo-French word from the German form of float. In Europe at the time of its earliest usage, the pieces of debris after the wreckage of a ship at sea were identified as flotsam. Incidentally, the word wreck started to be used in the compound form shipwreck at about this same time, the mid to late 1500s. The piano was torched before its placement on a sandbar, so although it could technically be described as a wreck, it isn’t flotsam.
Jetsam makes up the second part of the phrase we use to describe a mess of disjointed pieces, “flotsam and jetsam“; however it differs from flotsam. Jetsam is a shortening of jettison, goods thrown overboard to lighten and stabilize a ship that is about to sink.
Here’s a fun, if subtle, addition to the lexicon: Lagan refers to goods thrown overboard, but fastened to a buoy or other marker for later retrieval. Legally these differ from jetsam and flotsam.
Actually, the piano was placed as an art installation by 16-year-old Nicholas Harrington with the help of family and friends. Harrington was interested in expanding his art portfolio for his college applications, but we also want to thank him for the excuse to unfold some famously useful nautical terms from the 16th century.
Does this odd tale conjure any further word mysteries for you? Let us know.