Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 4, 2018

A Tale of the Sea: Flotsam and Jetsam

The Walrus and the Carpenter were walking close at hand
They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand
“If this were only cleared away,” they said, “It would be grand!”

As I wrote in my previous post, we walked along the beach one afternoon last week.

Redondo Beach Brad Nixon (640x478)

Brilliant sunlight glanced off the deep-blue water. The ocean was relatively rough for Santa Monica Bay. A chilly wind swept the almost empty sand. With the temperature in the 50s, there was no one in the water except a few short-board surfers at the breakwater.

By a Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

Gazing at the ocean, through one of those series of word associations, a question came to me.

“What do you think ‘flotsam and jetsam’ actually mean?” I asked The Counselor.

Rarely nonplussed on matters etymological, she pondered, then replied, “I don’t know. Sounds like a blog post topic to me.”

Thus, here we are, in the flotsam and jetsam blog post.

With flotsam and jetsam in mind, we strolled to to take a look at the very edge of the surf. There was a typical line of debris at the farthest reach of the waves as they surged up the beach.

Flotsam Brad Nixon 3 (640x478)

After a lifetime of assuming “flotsam and jetsam” simply denoted that sort of stuff, generically, I then had to wonder if there were some differentiation between the two terms.

Flotsam Brad Nixon 10 (640x478)

Is one organic material like kelp, while the other signifies man-made items like bits of plastic, fishing buoys or the odd gold Doubloon? Or, perhaps, is flotsam floating material while jetsam is, say, cast up onto the sand, (perhaps, my inner etymologist conjectured, related to Latin jactare, “to throw”)?

Law, Not Etymology

At home, dictionaries open, I thought I’d merely be inquiring into questions of etymology. As it turns out, “flotsam” and “jetsam” are associated because they signify specific aspects of marine law. They define conditions of ownership of the debris from shipwrecks.

“Flotsam” does indeed derive from “float” or “floating,” from an old Anglo-French word, floteson. Legally, flotsam is cargo, fittings or other material from wrecked or sunken ships that floats to the surface. In marine law, it’s finders keepers where flotsam is concerned. Thus, if one finds something that’s floated away from a shipwreck or washed off a boat, it’s fair game to tote it home.

Jetsam is a different matter: cargo or goods intentionally thrown overboard, whether to lighten a ship’s load, preserve them from sinking with the ship or other reasons. It hasn’t accidentally floated away. The root word, obviously enough, is “jettison*,” from which “jetsam” derived while we were speaking Middle English. If the original owner files the appropriate claim (I can only imagine the complexities of doing that) attesting that certain goods or items were cast overboard by intent, the finder of jetsam must return it to the owner. *Language nerds see note at end.

Quite obviously, the pair of words has entered the vernacular without their specific legal significance, but that’s what they originally signify.

But Wait, There’s More

Marine law uses two additional terms to define the status of shipwrecks and goods.

Lagan specifies items that, like jetsam, have been intentionally cast away, but fixed to a buoy or marker. They may be adrift, but are typically resting on the bottom. The owner of lagan retains right of possession once it’s recovered. It comes from an Old French word, possibly out of Old Norse for lie or lay (which through a separate derivation probably gives us first the Old English precursor of Modern English “lie,” as in to lie down).

Finally, there’s abandoned material (which might be an entire ship) submerged, resting on the ocean-, river- or lakebed, without a marker or buoy. Such items are “derelict,” employed as a substantive, not an adjective: A sunken ship is “a derelict.” We use the term in the same way, grammatically, when we describe a lost or homeless person as a derelict. The word derives from Latin derelictus, abandoned.

Topping It All Off

British law contains a category that includes all flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict: Wreck. Whether something floats or is cast away ─ marked or unmarked ─ or resides unclaimed on the seabed, it is Wreck.

On some of Britain’s stormy coasts, there have long been reports of inhabitants who did brisk business collecting goods from shipwrecks in order to keep or sell them. In some tales, they used lights to lure ships onto rocks to cause shipwrecks, a practice known as “wrecking.” Britain established an officer stationed on coasts empowered to use any force necessary to stop such activity, register any wreck, and administer its return, if possible. To this day, there’s a British official titled “Receiver of Wreck,” who supervises the tracking, recovery and return of wreck.

Alas, amongst the flotsam (and/or jetsam) that day on the beach we found no doubloons or pirate treasure, only these:

Flotsam glasses Brad Nixon (531x640)

At least now I know they’re flotsam. I left them there. Cute, just not my style.

*Initially jetson, derived from original jettison. Common usage changed it to jetsom, in imitation of other common words ending in –some.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Stanza from “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” by Lewis Carroll (recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Through the Looking Glass, 1872). “By a commodius vicus of recirculation” appears in the opening sentence of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, 1939.



  1. I didn’t know the term lagan. I wonder if it would apply in the never-ending battles over crab traps around here. The traps, with their cute, floating buoy markers, forever are coming loose and drifting into channels, where people pick them up and claim them for their own.

    The most frequently found jetsam here usually isn’t claimed by its owners. No one’s interested in saying, “Hey! Those well-wrapped, waterproof packages of illicit drugs are mine, man!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Makes sense. If I have a chance, I’ll ask about fishing buoys with the marine lawyer I know.


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