to·​tem | \ ˈtō-təm How to pronounce totem (audio) \

Definition of totem

1a : an object (such as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry also : a usually carved or painted representation of such an object
b : a family or clan identified by a common totemic object
2 : one that serves as an emblem or revered symbol

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Totem Has Roots in an Algonquian Language

Totem comes to us from Ojibwa, an Algonquian language spoken by an American Indian people from the regions around Lake Superior. The most basic form of the word in Ojibwa is believed to be "ote," but 18th-century English speakers encountered it as "ototeman" ("his totem"), which became our word totem. In its most specific sense, "totem" refers to to an emblematic depiction of something (such as an animal, plant, or supernatural being) gives a family or tribe its name and that often serves as a reminder of its ancestry. The term is also used broadly for any thing or person having particular emblematic or symbolic importance. The related adjective "totemic" describes something that serves as a totem, that depicts totems ("totemic basketry," for example), or that has the nature of a totem.

Examples of totem in a Sentence

Private jets are a totem of success among extremely wealthy people. the bald eagle, that universally recognized totem of our country
Recent Examples on the Web But there’s maybe no better totem for the last decade of consumer technology. Brian Barrett, Wired, "3D TV Tells You Everything About This Decade’s Tech," 31 Dec. 2019 For years it was held up by British euroskeptics as a totem of the project’s bureaucratic overreach and democratic deficit. Laurence Norman, WSJ, "U.K. Lawmakers Bid Farewell to European Parliament, a Launchpad for Brexit," 30 Jan. 2020 Skateboards — a mode of transportation, an instrument of art, a totem of defiance — now glide across American sidewalks, plazas and streets. John Branch, New York Times, "Japan’s Skateboarders Roll, Warily, Out of the Shadows," 26 Jan. 2020 This reduces an entire class to a marketing prop or totem of authenticity. Paul Lukas, The New Republic, "The Sports World’s Blue-Collar Cosplay," 24 Jan. 2020 Mandela's face is now used as a totem and is found on the country's money, billboards and coffee mugs. Daniel Gallan, CNN, "Why South Africa's Rugby World Cup victory means so much more," 2 Nov. 2019 The Corvette is seen too often as an anachronism or a sad totem of mid-life crises. Dan Carney, Popular Science, "The Corvette is finally the supercar it deserves to be," 2 Jan. 2020 Its meaning was that the goal of diversity, whatever its original intent, has become mostly a totem. Daniel Henninger, WSJ, "The Politics of Pointlessness," 16 Aug. 2017 Vo’s political totem, a pen once used to sign a 1963 nuclear test ban treaty, enshrines a kind of diplomacy that feels precarious in the era of Twitter foreign policy. Washington Post, "World-class conceptual art pops up in a vacant bank at the Watergate," 14 Nov. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'totem.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of totem

1791, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for totem

Ojibwa oto·te·man his totem

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Time Traveler for totem

Time Traveler

The first known use of totem was in 1791

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Last Updated

19 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Totem.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 Feb. 2020.

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More Definitions for totem


How to pronounce totem (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of totem

: something (such as an animal or plant) that is the symbol for a family, tribe, etc., especially among Native Americans
: a usually carved or painted figure that represents such a symbol
: a person or thing that represents an idea


to·​tem | \ ˈtō-təm How to pronounce totem (audio) \

Kids Definition of totem

1 : an object (as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan
2 : a carving or picture representing such an object

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More from Merriam-Webster on totem

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for totem

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with totem

Spanish Central: Translation of totem

Nglish: Translation of totem for Spanish Speakers Encyclopedia article about totem

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