Flotsam and Jetsam

Meaning of Idiom ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’

Flotsam and Jetsam means something similar to odds and ends, especially in regards to forgotten or unwanted objects. The idiom may also refer generally to garbage or anything unwanted, including people, objects, concepts, ideas, etc.

Sometimes, as well, people such as the homeless, refugees, waifs, etc. are pejoratively referred to as flotsam and jetsam.

Examples Of Use

“His house was a disorganized mess of flotsam and jetsam. It was a wonder he could find anything when he needed it.”

“Despite how long the meeting went, all that came of it was the same old flotsam and jetsam. Not one decent proposal was made.”


You may have heard of survivors from a sinking ship ‘clinging to flotsam and jetsam’ to survive. This reflects the original meaning of the terms, both of which originated in the 17th century. Flotsam referred to wreckage or objects that remained afloat after a ship sunk, while jetsam referred to objects thrown overboard or “jettisoned” in order to lighten the load on a distressed ship, so as to increase its buoyancy. Although both these terms had distinct meanings, by the early 1800’s they had come to be almost always used together. Both today, an example of a fossil word, only surviving in this idiom.

The figurative use of flotsam and jetsam began in the mid-1800’s. The idiom was not applied to people, however, until the latter half of the 20th century.

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