I was surprised today when grading a vocabulary quiz and found that students were defining the noun “flotsam” to mean “homeless” or “impoverished people.” Then I checked our vocabulary book and the definition is “floating debris; homeless, impoverished people.” I am used to the first definition in which the word is often paired with jetsam. The second definition I had heard occasionally in a metaphorical sense.
The definition bothered me because it implied that referring to homeless, impoverished people with a term also used for floating debris was acceptable. I explained that such a use was not and that to use flotsam in the second way was to use it in a highly pejorative sense. I also checked two on-line dictionaries The Oxford English Dictionary does not list the second definition, and that is the most authoritative source. Dictionary.com does list the second definition, but it is the fourth one on the site and is written as “a vagrant, penniless population” with the example “the flotsam of the city slums in medieval Europe.” Thus, even though this definition is similar it is less likely to lead a mistaken student to wonder if the person on the sidewalk in an urban area is flotsam.
It may be good for students to memorize words in this way for standardized tests, but outside of the context of books or other texts strange things can happen in terms of misapplication.