flotsam and jetsam

“Flotsam and jetsam” are odds and ends, bits and pieces, useless or discarded objects.

Flotsam and jetsam are usually used together nowadays although the words, in a variety of spellings, have separate meanings and were frequently used independently in the 1600s. Today, each word has a specific meaning under maritime law, to describe two types of marine debris.

Flotsam is defined as debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, often as a result from a shipwreck or accident and includes portions of the ship itself, as well as cargo or other items that float to the surface after a ship sinks. The word flotsam derives from the French word floter, to float.

Jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by a crew of a ship in distress, most often to lighten the ship’s load. Jetsam is a shortened word for jettison. The term can be used to describe anything that gets tossed off the ship in this fashion and is discovered floating in the water or washed ashore.

Under maritime law the distinction is important. Flotsam may be claimed by the original owner, whereas jetsam may be claimed as property of whoever discovers it. If the jetsam is valuable, the discoverer can sell it and keep the proceeds.

These words are related to salvage, property that has been recovered from a wreckage, or the recovery of the ship itself.

The law of salvage originated in the Roman practice of negotiorum gestio, which dictated that one who preserved or improved upon the property of another was owed compensation from the owner, even if had had not requested the service. The laws have evolved since negotiorum gestio, and today, in the US, a salvor who voluntarily brings the goods back into port may legally lay claim to them, or deliver them to a marshal in return for a reward.

I think that flotsam and jetsam can be pretty much defined by the old rhyme:

Finders keepers,
Losers weepers.

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  One thought on “flotsam and jetsam

  1. how9473
    November 7, 2021 at 7:20 am

    I loved your ending!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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