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Flotsam, jetsam, and sandbar pianos: Three mysteries revealed

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
  24. synthetyzed -  January 28, 2011 - 8:18 am

    I thought I saw Julienne Assange playing don’t know what u got till it’s gone by Cinderella…lol…

    Reply
  25. Just watching... -  January 28, 2011 - 8:13 am

    Wow…I’m sitting here at work, using Dictionary.com to look up “parenteral” to make sure I’ve used it correctly in my report, and see the story about the piano, and then see the comments, and then I read them and now I’m writing this. Whatta morning. I had fun. Thanks.

    Reply
  26. Mimi -  January 28, 2011 - 8:06 am

    I rather like the trebuchet idea!

    Reply
  27. bill -  January 28, 2011 - 8:04 am

    It was placed there by a kid named Nicholas Harrington to loost his college application. It was in Daytona beach news journal today

    Reply
  28. Jesus -  January 28, 2011 - 8:03 am

    Eric, what’s the big deal about Norsemen beating Columbus to the Americas by half a millenium? America is still called America because of Vespucci who came here because of Columbus. I don’t know of any place called Leifland or Ericonia or anything similar. Besides, Asians beat the Vikings to America by twelve millenia.

    Reply
  29. blank -  January 28, 2011 - 8:01 am

    Bravo, eVeReSt. One’s hopes for the future generations are partially restored.

    Reply
  30. Nanette -  January 28, 2011 - 7:54 am

    What a beautiful waste!

    Reply
  31. TY(the.king.of.chaos) -  January 28, 2011 - 7:30 am

    <3

    Reply
  32. TY(the.king.of.chaos) -  January 28, 2011 - 7:30 am

    awesome prank i knew someone did that :)

    Reply
  33. Ludwig von Beethosam -  January 28, 2011 - 7:26 am

    Artsam!! Good one. I like it and think its very intuitive for a 16 year old. Kudos!!

    Reply
  34. vcm -  January 28, 2011 - 7:10 am

    “Giving that piano to someone who would play it would have made a connection to art. The act of ruining a piano is not art. It actually is just a waste.”

    You must’ve missed Eric the Reader’s comment – it was a stage prop they had owned for awhile. Perhaps it was playable at some distant point in the past, but the only way it could have provided music these days was if someone put speakers in it.

    Reply
  35. DIVVIE -  January 28, 2011 - 6:51 am

    Call me an old coot, but I thought this was a blog discussing language, not great art.

    Reply
  36. randy -  January 28, 2011 - 6:39 am

    i thinks guess maybe ghost get pianos put on beacher.. because a years ago is history live here or something…

    Reply
  37. Howard Walowitz -  January 28, 2011 - 6:15 am

    The piano was placed there with alien assistance. Everyone knows that.

    Reply
  38. Pamela -  January 28, 2011 - 5:55 am

    The band Blue October uses the words brilliantly in their song “Into the Ocean”. Google or Youtube the tile of the song to become enlightened through the mastermind of Justin Furstenfeld (Lead singer). I love this band because the lyrics of their songs are raw and speak truth that many people turn a blind eye to.

    Reply
  39. Mike -  January 28, 2011 - 5:28 am

    Exquisitely Surreal

    Reply
  40. AIMES -  January 28, 2011 - 5:26 am

    People this was on the news like three days ago!

    Reply
  41. Stoopd -  January 28, 2011 - 5:17 am

    DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR LIVES!

    Reply
  42. Susan Overstreet -  January 28, 2011 - 4:43 am

    Maybe, a spoiled 16 year with too much time on his hands!

    Reply
  43. vigilante -  January 28, 2011 - 4:34 am

    help them if you can

    Reply
  44. pinknwhitedaisise -  January 28, 2011 - 4:25 am

    It is an interesting idea, romantic and mysterious before you get the truth of the matter. It is responsible of the boy to come forward and say he will pick up his mess, post internet frenzy. It may inspire others to temporarily abandon things in places they should not be (littering with good intentions?) but I do know that for some, the idea without the facts will inspire. If the piano inspires a writer to write or a painter to paint then the act did carry value after all, aside from making it on the internet. Everything makes it on the internet so that should never be a measure of importance.

    Reply
  45. Ben -  January 28, 2011 - 4:20 am

    blimey..

    Reply
  46. DAJ -  January 28, 2011 - 3:57 am

    Great story -thanks for runninh it

    Reply
  47. Sarah -  January 28, 2011 - 3:55 am

    @ Chloe
    I thought of LOTR too!

    Reply
  48. NM -  January 28, 2011 - 12:24 am

    Hah, it all sound complicated to me, let’s just call it simply as
    “supercaliflotsamisticexpialijetsam”>

    Reply
  49. Cyberquill -  January 27, 2011 - 11:45 pm

    Yes, this odd tale does indeed conjure up one word mystery for me: How did the term “art” ever come to be defined as “putting a piano in the water”?

    Reply
  50. Lisa -  January 27, 2011 - 10:28 pm

    DERELICT seems absolutely the best definition of this one – or to “Palin-ize”, perhaps the word would more specifically be DERELIBERACE…?

    Reply
  51. Jim galloway -  January 27, 2011 - 10:21 pm

    Reminds me of the Cartoonist Virgil Partch, who enjoyed an occasional practical joke. Whether true or not, one of the stories about his antics was that he picked a name and address out of the Hong Kong telephone book and package up an old barber chair and sent it to that address. He gained great enjoyment in speculating about the reaction of the person receiving such a package.

    Reply
  52. Lisa -  January 27, 2011 - 10:20 pm

    JUNKSAM?

    Reply
  53. Seward -  January 27, 2011 - 10:17 pm

    This is really good material

    Reply
  54. ElizOF -  January 27, 2011 - 10:03 pm

    I love the use and play on words… I’ve seen flotsam and jetsam quite a bit of late; particularly with my European friends. Interesting… take and toss :-)
    Lovely!
    Eliz

    Reply
  55. Zupa -  January 27, 2011 - 9:42 pm

    I thought flotsam and jetsam were just Ursula’s eels’ names! =D Well, now I know better.

    Reply
  56. eVeReSt -  January 27, 2011 - 9:36 pm

    “In Europe at the time of its earliest usage, the pieces of debris after the wreck 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.”

    - Personally, I would’ve written that excerpt the following way: “In Europe, at the time of its earliest usage, the pieces of debris left over after the wreck of a ship at sea were identified as flotsam. Incidentally, the word ‘wreck’ started to be used in the compound word ‘shipwreck’ at about this same time – the mid to late sixteenth century.”

    Regards,
    A concerned high-school student

    Reply
  57. Stormy -  January 27, 2011 - 9:14 pm

    There are actually four types of wreck in maritime law, the fourth one being ‘derelict’ (abandoned wreckage that has no possibility of being recovered).

    Reply
  58. Merovingian -  January 27, 2011 - 9:09 pm

    Now as I recall.. Flotsam is general floating stuff, drift wood and a like, Jetsam is Jettisoned stuff, cargo and a like.

    Reply
  59. June -  January 27, 2011 - 8:26 pm

    mollyfurie — artsam!! LOL!! Love it!
    I think it is kinda cool there as art, but hopefully Nicholas will properly remove it at some point. I would think he would have to have gotten a permit or be fined for doing that?

    Reply
  60. Chloe -  January 27, 2011 - 8:18 pm

    Anybody else think of the Lord of the Rings: ‘The Two Towers’ chapter entitled ‘Flotsam and Jetsam?’ No? Just me?
    Well, I feel like a geek. ;P

    Reply
  61. . -  January 27, 2011 - 8:13 pm

    :)

    Reply
  62. b.e. -  January 27, 2011 - 8:13 pm

    wow

    Reply
  63. adh -  January 27, 2011 - 8:08 pm

    dangerous

    Reply
  64. sunnie -  January 27, 2011 - 7:33 pm

    thats your brothers equip from underwater….lol

    Reply
  65. budgieluva -  January 27, 2011 - 7:14 pm

    I think that it would make an awesome picture. And to see a person sitting there playing-funny and artistic!

    Reply
  66. Anne -  January 27, 2011 - 6:51 pm

    Florida Keys this way……

    Reply
  67. Richard -  January 27, 2011 - 6:22 pm

    I guess it’s better than flinging a piano with a trebuchet.

    Reply
  68. Stuart Slater -  January 27, 2011 - 6:21 pm

    sorry for being a buzzkill. I guess it looks kinda cool.

    Reply
  69. Stuart Slater -  January 27, 2011 - 6:15 pm

    Giving that piano to someone who would play it would have made a connection to art. The act of ruining a piano is not art. It actually is just a waste.

    Reply
  70. faith -  January 27, 2011 - 6:10 pm

    …yes…word mystery…the fact that no one knows how to spell when they make all these comments…lol

    Reply
  71. faith -  January 27, 2011 - 6:08 pm

    …the boy just wanted to make a statement…why would ANY of you think that this was any stranger than a shootout in a middle school or a 12 year old Picasso genius?

    Reply
  72. Arielle -  January 27, 2011 - 5:57 pm

    Does anyone else recognize the “Flotsam” and “Jetsam”? Those are the names of Ursula’s pet eels in “The Little Mermaid”!! :D

    Reply
  73. Buenaventura L. Fano -  January 27, 2011 - 5:56 pm

    This is good…

    Reply
  74. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  January 27, 2011 - 5:52 pm

    His “Etude On A G-string At Low Tide” was risque to say the least… But when he then substituted a grandfather clock for his metronome, dangling the other half of the G-string from the plumb bob, the all-male audience began chasing the plumb bob, as it sway, till the boat heaved-to and all three, player, baby grand, and grandfather clock, slipped from the deck.

    But amazingly–

    He landed safely… and to-this-day he is known as, the Sand Bard….

    REFRAIN: “Aye, Calypso, I’ll sing you a story…”

    Reply
  75. Mel -  January 27, 2011 - 5:36 pm

    It’s an anti-lagan-flotjet-sam!
    Think the art installation seems incomplete without the piano stool or bench though ;-)

    Reply
  76. Eric the Reader -  January 27, 2011 - 5:36 pm

    Descending from Viking stock, I pride myself on answers to nautical mysteries. (And, yes, Norsemen beat Columbus to the “New World” by nearly half a millenium!) The boy’s father is a TV set designer & the piano was a prop that sat in his grandma’s garage for over four years. As a prop, it was probably gutted of most of it’s weight as to only appear to be playable. As such, it was probably less than 1/2 of it’s original weight and therefore not too difficult for the teenager, his brother & two friends to deliver it to the sandbar on his father’s 22 foot boat. (Prior to it’s sandbar placement, the boys had set the piano afire as part of their New Year’s celebration.) For anyone considering this artistic endeavor to be “litter,” fear not, for the young man has volunteered to remove the piano as a result of the viral internet hubbub.

    Reply
  77. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  January 27, 2011 - 5:32 pm

    Was the baby grand played at a bar on Piano Key Biscayne…?

    Maybe next we’ll read of a safe resting on a mudbank…?

    Was it put-out on a fire sale but couldn’t float…?

    Reply
  78. Mirage -  January 27, 2011 - 5:31 pm

    Flotsam and Jetsam are the names of the eels in The Little Mermaid

    Reply
  79. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  January 27, 2011 - 5:26 pm

    What’s the word for the stuff the Navy throws overboard because it’s not on the property manifest…? SINKSAM? JUNKSAM? BULKSAM? STOWSAM?

    Reply
  80. mollyfurie -  January 27, 2011 - 5:15 pm

    Artsam………….

    Reply
  81. Hope -  January 27, 2011 - 5:04 pm

    Very interesting! Love the idea of it all! Smart boy! Would have loved to listen to him play on the beach though! :)

    Reply
  82. McKenzie -  January 27, 2011 - 4:56 pm

    I personally think the idea of a piano just sitting out in the middle of the sea is really beautiful concept. I’m kind of sad I know where it came from now…

    Reply
  83. Liz -  January 27, 2011 - 4:42 pm

    Well then, since this piano’s appearance on the sandbar is not the result of a shipwreck, nor the result of a ship’s being stabilized, nor the result of it being tied to a buoy, we can conclude that it is not flotsam, jetsam, or lagan. In fact, this piano It is just good ole junk!

    Reply
  84. Waldo Pepper -  January 27, 2011 - 4:37 pm

    FIRST!!

    Reply
  85. olena -  January 27, 2011 - 4:33 pm

    why in the world would someone want to put a baby grand piano in a beach this dude must be mad crazy. someone must have seen him put it there unless it was during the night. was it? please answer my questions they’re driving me crazy.

    Reply
  86. FLOTSAMNJETSAM | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  January 27, 2011 - 4:19 pm

    [...] Old and New by Alfred Domett and Flotsam and Jetsam the the band — a piano on a sandbar in Biscayne Bay — it works for us — a Grand [...]

    Reply
  87. john -  January 27, 2011 - 4:03 pm

    thats Illuminati,kanye west put it there, he was going to play his song runaway of his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

    Reply
  88. Lilliana -  January 27, 2011 - 3:57 pm

    didn’t anybody see him put it there? how could he get A 650 pound piano out there? This dude was mad! that’s not art, that littering! Big time! why did he torch it? will somebody please answer my weird and annoying questions!

    Reply
  89. VL -  January 27, 2011 - 3:41 pm

    and…i can’t spell. I meant ANTICLIMAX

    Reply
  90. margaret -  January 27, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    Play it again sam,

    Reply
  91. VL -  January 27, 2011 - 3:37 pm

    what an anyiclimax! good inforrmation though

    Reply

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