Dejected on the Jetty, Watching the Flotsam Float Away

Last time we reflected on “reject,” “inject” “project” and other words derived from Latin iacere ‘to throw.’ I said there were more. Did you think of any? If not, it’s probably because they don’t take the form “-ject.”

Somewhere along the line the /k/ sound (spelled with a “c”) was ejected in some of the derived words. For instance “jet” meaning ‘a stream of gas or liquid shot out or thrown upwards’ comes partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French jetter ‘to throw’ and partly (in later use) < French jet ‘projection, protruding part.’

The latter meaning gives us “jetty,” which originally meant ‘the protruding part of a building, especially an overhanging upper story.’ Now, of course, a jetty is a ‘breakwater or pier constructed to protect or defend a harbor, stretch of coast, or riverbank.’ The word can also refer to a small pier or a natural promontory of land or rock.

In maritime law “jettison” is ‘the action or an act of throwing goods overboard, especially in order to lighten a ship in distress.’ In speech the unstressed middle vowel was lost in the 16th century, producing the word “jetsam,” which refers to ‘goods discarded from a ship and washed ashore.’ “Jetsam” is seldom heard without its faithful companion “flotsam,” a legal term for ‘such part of the wreckage of a ship or its cargo as is found floating on the surface of the sea.’ But “flotsam and jetsam” is most frequently used as a jocular term for odds and ends. And that’s just what iacere has tossed into the sea of English words.

Photo by Judith Herman

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One Response to Dejected on the Jetty, Watching the Flotsam Float Away

  1. Pingback: The Jet and the Iceberg | Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper

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