Tuesday, March 6, 2012

flotsam and jetsam

The sad fact about ignorance is that it tends to creep back up on you. I know, for instance, that I once knew exactly what flotsam and jetsam  was. I know this because I know exactly where I learned of it. It was in a book one of my  early grade school teachers read to us, and I believe we may have even done some kind of science project on it.

Because of Pagoo, the hermit crab, we learned a lot about tidepool life. My sense is that flotsam and jetsam are what float in and out with the tide. Debris? But am I even right about that? And if so, which is which?  

***

Well, I would have to reread the book to know how flotsam or jetsam ended up in Pagoo's tidepool. Now that I think about it, maybe it was just plankton. Anyway, much to my relief, flotsam and jetsam are indeed debris, not microscopic sealife. They are terms in maritime law which define different kinds of cargo that end up in the sea. Flotsam, you guessed it, is cargo or wreckage that remains floating on the sea after the shipwrecked ship has sunk. Jetsam is cargo or equipment that has been thrown from a ship in distress to lighten its load, and by extension cargo that has ended up washed up on shore. There is even another term, lagan, for whatever sinks to the ocean floor. (Sometimes, though this word means cargo thrown overboard that has been attached to a buoy with the hope of being able to retrieve it later.)



Flotsam comes from Anglo-French floteson, and back from there to Old French flotaison, "a floating". As for jetsam, as I was writing this up, I wondered if it was related to the word "jettison", but decided that was too unlikely. Wrong. Jettison, the act of throwing overboard, was actually  restored to this original meaning after it had drifted into being jetsam, which had the vague sense of things cast overboard. The sequence of jetsam goes back through "jottsome" to Middle English jetteson to Anglo French getteson, and finally to Old French gettaison-- "a throwing". 

A-floatin' and a-throwin' and a-sinkin' is about the size of it all.

But the figurative use of the phrase to mean 'odds and ends' comes up as early as 1861. And even before this, Sir Walter Scott, though retaining more of the original meaning, wrote in his Diary of 1848,

"The goods and chattles of the inhabitants are all said to savour of Flotsome and Jetsome." 




Ouch, Sir Walter.

27 comments:

  1. To this day, a college friend and I enjoy talking about flotsam and jetsam along with the Massachusetts towns of Dedham and Needham.
    =======================================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  2. That is a solid friendship, Peter.

    I'm guessing that "lagan" fell out of usage (and to the bottom of the sea) because it didn't have the right ending.

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  3. And here’s the monument to Sir Walter in Edinburgh. In the light of day, you can see a sculpture of him sitting under that big Victorian space ship.
    =======================================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  4. That's a very beautiful photo.

    My grandmother was a big Scott fan, but I have yet to open a copy of his work.

    It's a failing, I know.

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  5. I don't know if its'a a failing; Scott's been out of popular favor for a long time. I wonder what it would take to bring back interest in his work, I haven't read him either.

    Thanks for the compliment.

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  6. The Lagan, by the way, is also the river that runs through Belfast.

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  7. Popular favor counts for something but not everything, especially when you work in the book biz.

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  8. Well, I really meant popular and critical favor -- cultural currency, you might call it. I don't think Scott is much read or talked about these days, though he was outrageously popular in his time.

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  9. Yeah, but that's what I mean--out of fashion is definitely not a deterrent for me. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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  10. This would be a big test; he's far out of fashion. But back in the day, composers based symphonies on his work.

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  11. Well, I think I must try one soon. I can't believe that someone who swept through the popular imagination would have nothing at all to say to our time.

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  12. I think what you've said will now help me ALWAYS remember the meaning and difference. Thank you!

    Flotsam = floating stuff Jetsam = jettisoned stuff

    Yay! Also I think somehow it might help me win at games like Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy. Yes?!

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  13. When you rake in the big bucks, just don't forget the little people, Kathleen.

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  14. I have a vague idea that Scott's style may be a bit lush for contemporary tastes.

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  15. Needham=where you buy stuff you need. Dedham+Absolutely nothing going on there.

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  16. Peter, if I ever get anywhere near Needham and Dedham, I now know which fork of the road to chose.

    On the website I found the Scott quote there was a linkage to his other coinages, so I think finding those in context might be interesting in itself. It does sound like he had a bit of wi anyway.

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  18. I stay in one of those towns when I visit the Boston area.

    I have some long plane flights coming up. Maybe I'll be the only passenger reading Sir Walter Scott.

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  19. Well, if it's a long flight, better make sure you have a backup plan. Is this the Bristol trip?

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  20. No, Israel. For my nephew's bar-mitzvah. I leave Sunday.

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  21. Wow. That's a trip, alright.

    I didn't know if I could find the link but here is the site on Walter Scott's phrases.

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  22. Thanks i had never known Scott was a prolific phrase-maker.

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  23. Hey Peter -- what about Wareham? Emphasis on 'ham'.

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  24. And for that matter, what about Graham? I'll spare anyone else from saying that ham is also emphasized here.

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  25. I went to school in Waltham, which the locals pronounce as if the last syllable were ham, the near.

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