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Flotsam vs. Jetsam: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Updated on September 27, 2023
"Flotsam" refers to debris in the water that wasn't deliberately discarded, while "Jetsam" describes items deliberately thrown overboard, typically to lighten a ship's load.

Key Differences

"Flotsam" and "Jetsam" are nautical terms that refer to shipwrecked or discarded items found floating on water. However, their specific origins and meanings differ. "Flotsam" denotes the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on the water. These items aren't intentionally thrown overboard but end up in the water due to accidents, shipwrecks, or natural disasters. In contrast, the term "Jetsam" indicates items that were deliberately thrown overboard from a ship, usually to lighten it in dire circumstances.
"Flotsam" paints an image of accidental waste, depicting the unfortunate events that lead to material being adrift in the water. If you imagine a ship sinking after hitting an iceberg, the floating debris and goods would be categorized as flotsam. On the other hand, "Jetsam" evokes scenarios where deliberate decisions are made for the greater good of the vessel or crew. During a storm, if a ship risks sinking due to its heavy weight, the crew might jettison cargo or equipment to keep the ship afloat. These discarded items become jetsam.
Over time, the combined phrase "flotsam and jetsam" has evolved to describe miscellaneous or assorted items without any maritime connection. It can metaphorically refer to odds and ends or miscellaneous items in various contexts. Still, the distinct difference remains: "Flotsam" is unintentional, and "Jetsam" is deliberate.
In legal contexts, these distinctions matter. Salvage laws, which govern the recovery of wrecked or discarded property, distinguish between flotsam, jetsam, and other categories of marine debris. Understanding whether items were accidentally lost or purposefully discarded can influence the rights of salvagers and original owners.

Comparison Chart

Basic Definition

Floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo.
Items deliberately thrown overboard from a ship.


Accidental, due to shipwrecks or disasters.
Deliberate, usually to lighten a ship.

Legal Implications

Considered unintentional debris in salvage laws.
Discarded deliberately, affecting salvage rights.

Common Associations

Accidents, misfortune.
Purposeful actions, strategic decisions.

Extended Usage

Has been used to describe accidentally collected items or waste.
Used to denote intentionally discarded items or things gotten rid of.

Flotsam and Jetsam Definitions


Floating refuse or waste.
The lake was covered in flotsam after the festival.


Goods thrown overboard to lighten a ship.
The sailors decided to throw the cargo as jetsam during the storm.


Marine debris accidentally in water.
Environmentalists are concerned about the amount of flotsam in our oceans.


Items jettisoned from a vessel.
The jetsam was recovered and auctioned to the highest bidder.


Miscellaneous or unimportant material
. His desk was littered with the flotsam of his travels.


Discarded items found floating.
Jetsam from the fleeing ships could be seen along the coast.


Floating debris resulting from a shipwreck.
The flotsam from the sunken vessel washed up on shore.


Deliberately discarded material.
The city's streets were filled with jetsam after the parade.


Unintentional remnants.
The attic was filled with the flotsam of years gone by.


Goods that are cast overboard from a ship, especially in an attempt to lighten the ship, and that sink to the bottom of a body of water.


Goods floating on the surface of a body of water after a shipwreck or after being cast overboard to lighten the ship.


Discarded odds and ends.


Discarded or unimportant things
"Keyrings, bookmarks ... gum, scissors, paper clips ... pencils and pads stolen from various hotels.


Articles thrown overboard from a ship or boat in order to lighten the load of a ship in distress.
There she was, floating amongst the jetsam, like so much debris.


People who are considered to be worthless or to have been rejected by society.


(by extension) Discarded odds and ends.
They were the jetsam of the dot-com bust.


Debris floating in a river or sea, in particular fragments from a shipwreck.


Goods which sink when cast into the sea, and remain under water; - distinguished from flotsam, goods which float, and ligan (or lagan), goods which are sunk attached to a buoy.


Goods lost by shipwreck, and floating on the sea; - in distinction from jetsam or jetson.


The act of throwing objects from a ship to lighten the load; jettison{1}. See Jettison, 1.


The floating wreckage of a ship


Anything thrown overboard from a ship, whether floating or not.


Objects scattered about in a disorderly manner; as, he couldn't find his sneakers among the jetsam in his room.


The part of a ship's equipment or cargo that is thrown overboard to lighten the load in a storm


The floating wreckage of a ship


Purposefully forsaken things.
Her jetsam of old letters and postcards told stories of bygone years.


Can "Jetsam" include items other than ship cargo?

Yes, it can be any item thrown overboard to lighten a ship.

Can "Jetsam" refer to intangible things?

Metaphorically, yes, like discarding old habits or beliefs.

How do I differentiate between "Flotsam" and other marine debris?

"Flotsam" is specifically from shipwrecks or unintentional losses.

Can "Flotsam" result from river accidents?

Yes, while maritime in origin, it can refer to any floating wreckage.

Does "Jetsam" always result from intentional actions?

Yes, it's specifically items deliberately discarded.

Are there other terms related to "Flotsam" and "Jetsam"?

Yes, like "lagan" (goods sunk with a buoy attached) and "derelict" (abandoned sea vessels).

Do "Flotsam" and "Jetsam" have legal distinctions?

Yes, they are differentiated in salvage laws.

Is "Flotsam" always the result of unfortunate events?

Typically, yes, as it arises from accidents or disasters.

Are "Flotsam" and "Jetsam" used in modern language?

Yes, often metaphorically to describe miscellaneous items or remnants.

Are "Flotsam" and "Jetsam" synonyms?

No, "Flotsam" refers to accidental debris, while "Jetsam" is deliberately discarded items.

Is all floating marine debris considered "Flotsam"?

No, only debris from shipwrecks or accidents is flotsam.

Is "Jetsam" always related to emergencies?

Mostly, but it can also be routine discarding of unneeded items.

Why would sailors resort to creating "Jetsam"?

Typically, to lighten the ship during emergencies or storms.

Is "Flotsam" exclusive to marine environments?

While traditionally so, it's metaphorically used in other contexts too.

Can "Jetsam" be reclaimed by the ship that discarded it?

Legally, it might depend on salvage laws and the circumstances.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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