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A mystery has gripped Biscayne Bay since New Years, when a 650-pound baby grand piano appeared on a sandbar above the waves. Was this out-of-place instrument flotsam, the work of pirates? Was this lagan from bumbling musical smugglers?

Full disclosure: This riddle has in fact been solved, and we’ll reveal the enigmatic source in a minute. There is a greater puzzle here that will last longer than this tale of a beached piano: the classic and confusing words “flotsam” and “jetsam.” Please prolong your suspense for a moment more in order to learn the precise meanings of these funky terms that you’ve invariably heard but likely don’t fully comprehend.

Flotsam is an Anglo-French word from the German form of float. In Europe at the time of its earliest usage, the pieces of debris after the wreckage of a ship at sea were identified as flotsam. Incidentally, the word wreck started to be used in the compound form shipwreck at about this same time, the mid to late 1500s. The piano was torched before its placement on a sandbar, so although it could technically be described as a wreck, it isn’t flotsam.

Jetsam makes up the second part of the phrase we use to describe a mess of disjointed pieces, “flotsam and jetsam“; however it differs from flotsam. Jetsam is a shortening of jettison, goods thrown overboard to lighten and stabilize a ship that is about to sink.

Here’s a fun, if subtle, addition to the lexicon: Lagan refers to goods thrown overboard, but fastened to a buoy or other marker for later retrieval. Legally these differ from jetsam and flotsam.

Actually, the piano was placed as an art installation by 16-year-old Nicholas Harrington with the help of family and friends. Harrington was interested in expanding his art portfolio for his college applications, but we also want to thank him for the excuse to unfold some famously useful nautical terms from the 16th century.

Does this odd tale conjure any further word mysteries for you? Let us know.
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98 Comments

  1. Kewl -  May 15, 2012 - 1:30 pm

    Record yourself saying “I want a math debate” while holding your tongue. Now play what you recorded. Listen.

    Reply
  2. K -  February 19, 2011 - 2:55 pm

    Jetsam and Flotsam are also names of neopets! :)

    Reply
  3. AMY-LOU -  February 1, 2011 - 9:35 am

    A 16 year old boy talked his parents and close friends to help him put it there so it would look good on his collage report!

    Reply
  4. Hope -  January 29, 2011 - 12:08 pm

    I can’t believe that I actually ‘tagged’ this to come back to… to see what people wrote on this forum. Makes me rewonder the way people think… and, the WHY… Almost wish I hadn’t have commented in the first place… but, deep down inside… I am glad that I did! ;) I think… lol

    Reply
  5. Wilfried M. from Germany -  January 29, 2011 - 10:02 am

    There came some news a piano were sitting on a sandbank near Miami.
    Without knowing further details, this scene seemed lyric on me and I followed curiously the story.

    It was funny also to notice when some people claimed to have put the piano there, and in the end, after so many amazing suspicions (divorce, art-project …) the reality arose.

    I would have loved it when the piano would have kept it’s secret sitting there as a symbol for whatever you like giving space for everybody to dream about.

    Reply
  6. smoothius -  January 29, 2011 - 7:33 am

    its actually a government experiment to see if we can lure the mermaids ashore (they loves them some beethoven!)

    Reply
  7. Bob -  January 28, 2011 - 4:17 pm

    I understand art. Read “From Bauhaus to Our House” cover to cover.

    Reply
  8. Roxanne -  January 28, 2011 - 3:14 pm

    First of all, about 5 people said that they were the only ones to notice the Little Mermaid thing. Well, none of you were.

    Secondly, if you think it’s so bad that they littered, it’s not like you never have either!

    Thirdly, for all of you who don’t understand art, please don’t tell us your opinions. We don’t need to hear them. This is definatly art.

    Reply
  9. Bob -  January 28, 2011 - 2:44 pm

    Art? really? Burn a piano, toss it on a sand bar and call it art. Then again, drop a piano on a burning Morris Marina. Now that’s art.

    Reply
  10. Ray -  January 28, 2011 - 1:47 pm

    Flotsam & Jetsam were the name of a comic singing duo we used to hear on the BBC (UK) in the 1940′s. One of their songs was “Little Miss Bouncer, Loved an announcer,down at the BBC.

    Reply
  11. Hobson -  January 28, 2011 - 1:11 pm

    Play it again, Swam!

    Reply
  12. sonia -  January 28, 2011 - 1:07 pm

    I guess we don’t have enough garbage in our waters. It is sickening.

    Reply
  13. Afton -  January 28, 2011 - 11:50 am

    I believe I am the only one to relize this but the names of the eels from The Little Mermaid are Flotsam and Jetsam. Just saying..

    Reply
  14. Harry -  January 28, 2011 - 10:51 am

    I say, put a few bottles of liquor on top of it, and rename the sandbar…call it, a “piano bar”.

    Reply
  15. esrywsr -  January 28, 2011 - 10:38 am

    :) :( <3
    funny stuff

    Reply
  16. Dicky -  January 28, 2011 - 10:18 am

    “A mystery has gripped Biscayne Bay since New Years”…. why “New Years?” Shouldn’t it be, “New Year?”

    Reply
  17. Lexicom -  January 28, 2011 - 10:17 am

    Briiliant, superb explanation using this incident!!!! The planting of the piano is an art happening aiming at provocking, generating reactions. It hurst to read some of the comments posted here and see some people have cero, niente, no sensitivity for the arts and the same amount of sense of humor.

    Reply
  18. headfood -  January 28, 2011 - 10:10 am

    Nicholas, next time just use Photoshop.

    Reply
  19. kat -  January 28, 2011 - 10:03 am

    who has extra 650 pound baby grand pianos to spare for art projects? i wish i did!

    Reply
  20. Carol Czitrom -  January 28, 2011 - 9:29 am

    Does nobody remember Flotsam and Jetsam from Vaudeville?

    Reply
  21. KM -  January 28, 2011 - 8:49 am

    “You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish”
    REO Speedwagon

    …now, somehow makes more sense

    Reply
  22. wordjunkie -  January 28, 2011 - 8:41 am

    Give it up, Waldo!

    I loved the article, though. Thanks!

    Reply
  23. swalker -  January 28, 2011 - 8:22 am

    The word “artsam” seems appropriate.

    Reply
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