“What’s flotsam?”

Flotsam and Jetsam by John Singer Sargent, 1908. (Image courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine)
Flotsam and Jetsam by John Singer Sargent, 1908. (Image courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine)

On a road trip somewhere in the Midwest, The Eight-Year-Old asked, “What’s flotsam?”

Daddyo, authoritatively: “Jetsam’s brother.”

I was all set to file this under Funny Stuff My Husband Says and use it as a quick and easy Saturday post, but then my husband had to ruin it.

Daddyo, irritatingly: “But I bet they have technically different meanings. Mommyo, why don’t you look it up?”

The Eight-Year-Old, eagerly: “Yes, Mommyo, you should ask Caterpickles.”

My ship was sunk.

So here’s the difference. Flotsam and jetsam are related, in that they are both types of ship-related ocean litter.

  • Flotsam is the floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo.
  • Jetsam is similar, but instead of being the carcass of what’s left after the shipwreck, it’s all the stuff the crew tossed overboard in hopes of avoiding the wreck in the first place. Jetsam can include parts of the ship, its cargo, or its equipment.

The legal distinction between the two is important. Under marine law, flotsam can be reclaimed by its original owner. But jetsam belongs to whomever scavenges it, generally by finding it on the beach.

If the offloaded cargo, ship parts, or equipment sink to the ocean floor they stop being flotsam or jetsam and start being either lagan (or ligan) if they can be reclaimed, or derelict, if they can’t.

Confusingly, the term derelict is also sometimes used to refer to abandoned ships left to drift on the sea. Which I would think would make them flotsam. But I guess that’s why I don’t practice maritime law.

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