Connections between modern language and the sea are strong, and the origins of many terms and phrases are often clear. For instance, the implication of sayings like, Don't give up the ship, Like a fish out of water, and Take the wind out of his sails seem pretty obvious. In the case of flotsam and jetsam as a phrase which linguistics call a Siamese twin meaning pairs of words which are traditionally linked by and or or that commonly have comparable meanings because each unit in the pair are related in other formulaic ways. In this case, however, it’s not of synonyms but of associated ideas.
Today when these words are used together as flotsam and jetsam or sometimes as mentioned in the previous write ups flotsam jetsam and ligan. The phase by today's vernacular simply means "discarded items." Things that are, by and large, of no value that may be found on the ground, or on the shore.
Historically though it was only the shore, or in the sea itself. Nevertheless, if truth be told they don't mean the same thing at all and while they are connected ideas they aren’t exchangeable -- except when used together what they both mean is indeed similar. They are in fact "discarded items,” but more specifically items from a ship.
In English law, flotsam, jetsam and ligan are defined as:
- “Goods lost at sea, as distinguished from goods which come to land, which are technically designated wreck. Jetsam (a contraction of jettison, from Lat. jactare, to throw) is when goods are cast into the sea, and there sink and remain under water; flotsam (float son, from float, Lat. flottare) is where they continue floating on the surface of the waves; ligan (or lagan, from lay or lie) is where they are sunk in the sea, but tied to a cork or buoy ‘in order to be found again. (Originally) ‘flotsam, jetsam and ligan belong(ed)’ to the sovereign in the absence only of the true owner. Wreck, on the other hand (i.e. goods cast on shore), was by the common law adjudged to the sovereign in any case, because it was said by the loss of the ship all property was gone out of the original owner.
Jetsam was used beginning in 1575 and the use of the word flotsam can be found recorded as early as the 17th century. These curious distinctions between supplies, cargo and freight washed ashore as lost, and commodities on and in the sea as not lost, no doubt led to the primitive practice of plundering wrecked ships.
These legal terms in maritime law may have their origins in five original towns that formed the Cinque Ports located along the southern coast of England. Cinque means five in French and their history dates as far back as to the time of Alfred the Great. At some point during the 12th century Henry VII created this federation of townships that included Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings. As time went by, the number of cinque ports expanded to over thirty which would have included just about every south eastern coastal ship building village. The purpose of the alliance was to provide ships and protection of the coastline for the King before the creation of the Royal Navy in 1496. Because of this they were allowed a free hand to rule their own areas. The Cinque Ports were first cited in a Royal Charter of 1155 and in exchange for certain rights, these places maintained ships that would be made available to the Crown in times of conflict. The original charter gave the members the right to :
- "Exemption from tax and tallage, Right of soc and sac,
tol and team, blodwit and fledwit, pillory and tumbril,
infrangentheof and outfrangentheof, mundbryce,
waives and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan"
The first sawmills for sawing and working up the flotsam and jetsam of the shipwrecks sprang up and many homes sporting beams of wood from wreckage and rubble were constructed. Even whales that washed up on shore were considered flotsam and hence belonged to the king. Many craftsmen would steal the ivory teeth and create ornate carvings. Frequently the ships and men from these towns would prolong the fighting long after peace had been reached leading to open piracy around the Kent and Sussex coast. These swashbuckling privateers on behalf of the Crown, led the way to rampant piracy and smuggling in the area calling for the creation of maritime laws.
Over the course of the era wrecking history developed an exceptionally dark side with many prayers said and dead men tales told. Some relate how men waved lanterns from cliff tops to lure passing ships on to rocks. A man bursting into a church and shouting, "Wreck! Wreck!" and the clergyman is said to have barred the door to stop his flock from rushing for the shore - while he removed his robes "so we can all start fair". Many people were convinced that the bounty of wrecks was theirs by right, and some were ruthless in claiming it. There are records of half-drowned mariners having clothes ripped from their backs. Sailors were said to recite a nervous prayer:
- God keep us from rocks and shelving sands
And save us from Breage and Germoe men's hands
- "Oh please Lord, let us pray for all on the sea
But if there's got to be wrecks, please send them to we."
(Richard Larn, Charleston Shipwreck Museum)
The Cinque Ports authority weakened over the centuries. In 1348 the Black Death swept through Europe and Great Britain drastically reducing the population and French raids on the ports during the 13th and 14th centuries caused more bloodshed. The silting up of the harbors reduced the size of ships able to enter the area, and finally the creation of the Royal Navy during Henry VII reign from1485 to 1509 put an end to the federation. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1800’s that the phrase lost the distinction between the two words and was being used figuratively as a fixed phrase meaning worthless odds and ends. By the second half of the 1900’s the term began to refer to the rejects of society like vagrants and the destitute or homeless individuals.
NotFabio says Scupper is another term typically used in admiralty to denote when something become salvagable. Typically speaking something scuppered is still property of the owner provided they can account for it: i.e. in offshore racing, sails washed overboard remain part of the boat until they are no long visible.
The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, © Oxford University Press 1968Timber galore for Cornish wreckers