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flotsam

[flot-suh m]
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noun
  1. the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water.Compare jetsam, lagan.
  2. material or refuse floating on water.
  3. useless or unimportant items; odds and ends.
  4. a vagrant, penniless population: the flotsam of the city slums in medieval Europe.
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Origin of flotsam

1600–10; < Anglo-French floteson, derivative of floter to float < Old English flotian
Also called flotsam and jetsam (for defs 3, 4).
Can be confusedflotsam jetsam
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

British Dictionary definitions for flotsam and jetsam

flotsam

noun
  1. wreckage from a ship found floatingCompare jetsam (def. 1), lagan
  2. useless or discarded objects; odds and ends (esp in the phrase flotsam and jetsam)
  3. vagrants
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Word Origin

C16: from Anglo-French floteson, from floter to float
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for flotsam and jetsam

flotsam

n.

c.1600, from Anglo-French floteson, from Old French flotaison "a floating," from floter "to float" (of Germanic origin; see float) + -aison, from Latin -ation(em). Spelled flotsen till mid-19c. when it altered, perhaps under influence of many English words in -some.

In British law, flotsam are goods found floating on the sea as a consequence of a shipwreck or action of wind or waves; jetsam are things cast out of a ship in danger of being wrecked, and afterward washed ashore, or things cast ashore by the sailors. Whatever sinks is lagan. Figurative use for "odds and ends" attested by 1861.

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Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with flotsam and jetsam

flotsam and jetsam

1

Discarded odds and ends, as in Most of our things have been moved to the new house, but there's still some flotsam and jetsam to sort. [Mid-1800s]

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2

Destitute, homeless individuals, as in The mayor was concerned about the flotsam and jetsam of the inner city. [Second half of 1900s] Both words originated in 17th-century sailing terminology. Flotsam literally meant “wreckage or cargo that remains afloat after a ship has sunk.” Jetsam meant “goods thrown overboard from a ship in danger of sinking in order to give it more buoyancy.” Both literal meanings remain current, although the distinction between them is often forgotten.

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The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.