What's the Difference Between Flotsam and Jetsam?

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iStock

Along with serving as the names of two villainous eels in Disney's animated classic The Little Mermaid, the phrase “flotsam and jetsam” is often used to describe the floating debris found in the aftermath of an accident at sea. And while it might initially seem like a strange moniker for maritime wreckage, there's a very good reason for the two-part terminology.

According to maritime law, “jetsam” is the term for anything that is cast overboard or otherwise jettisoned from a distressed ship intentionally, either to lighten the cargo load or as some other reaction to a problem the vessel has encountered. The term can be used to describe anything that finds its way off the ship in this fashion and is discovered floating in the water or washed ashore.

“Flotsam,” on the other hand, is defined as the debris that is unintentionally left behind after a shipwreck, which can include portions of the ship itself, as well as cargo or other items that float to the surface after a ship sinks. (For example, that splintered panel of ornately carved wood that Rose is floating on at the end of Titanic would be considered flotsam—but that certainly didn't help poor Jack.)

Maritime law distinguishes flotsam from jetsam by the presence of intent to remove material from the ship: Basically, if it ended up in the water on purpose, it's jetsam. Everything else floating around the site of the incident is flotsam. This is an important distinction, as some countries have very particular guidelines for how each type of debris should be handled—and who takes ownership of it—that are determined by the category of debris. Laws in the UK once dictated that recovered jetsam be returned to the owner of the vessel, while flotsam became the property of the government.

However, it's worth noting that both of these terms only apply to debris that's floating in the water. Anything that sinks to the bottom of the ocean falls under a new set of terms: “lagan” and “derelict.” And just like with flotsam and jetsam, the difference between the terms depends on how the material got there. Cargo that is left behind intentionally—usually with a buoy attached—in order to be recovered at a later point is called “lagan,” while anything that sinks to the bottom of the ocean without any plans for recovery is described as “derelict.”

Today, all four categories of debris—flotsam, jetsam, lagan, and derelict—are generally grouped together in most countries' maritime laws. However, according to the United Kingdom's Merchant Shipping Act of 1995, flotsam, jetsam, and lagan remain the property of their original owners when discovered by rescuers or salvage agents, but derelict falls under an entirely different and comprehensive set of regulations.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

What Are Sugar Plums?

Marten Bjork, Unsplash
Marten Bjork, Unsplash

Thanks to The Nutcracker and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," sugar plums are a symbol of the holidays. But what are sugar plums, exactly? Like figgy pudding and yuletide, the phrase has become something people say (or sing) at Christmastime without knowing the original meaning. Before it was the subject of fairy dances and storybook dreams, a sugar plum was either a fruitless candy or a not-so-sweet euphemism.

According to The Atlantic, the sugar plums English-speakers ate from the 17th to the 19th century contained mostly sugar and no plums. They were made by pouring liquid sugar over a seed (usually a cardamom or caraway seed) or almond, allowing it to harden, and repeating the process. This candy-making technique was called panning, and it created layers of hard sugar shells. The final product was roughly the size and shape of a plum, which is how it came to be associated with the real fruit.

Before the days of candy factories, these confections could take several days to make. Their labor-intensive production made them a luxury good reserved for special occasions. This may explain how sugar plums got linked to the holidays, and why they were special enough to dance through children's heads on Christmas Eve.

The indulgent treat also became a synonym for anything desirable. This second meaning had taken on darker connotations by the 17th century. A 1608 definition from the Oxford English Dictionary describes a sugar plum as “something very pleasing or agreeable, esp. when given as a sop or bribe.” Having a "mouthful of sugar plums" wasn't necessarily a good thing, either. It meant you said sweet words that may have been insincere.

As true sugar plums have fallen out of fashion, demand for Christmas candy resembling the actual fruit has risen. You can now buy fancy candied plums and plum-flavored gummy candies for the holidays, but if you want something closer to the classic sugar plum, a Jordan almond is the more authentic choice.