to·​tem ˈtō-təm How to pronounce totem (audio)
: 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
: a family or clan identified by a common totemic object
: 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 (meaning "his totem"), which became our word totem. In its most specific sense, totem refers to an emblematic depiction of an animal or plant that gives a family or clan its name and that often serves as a reminder of its ancestry. The term is also used broadly for any person or thing 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 The debate over Nippon Steel’s plan to acquire U.S. Steel echoes the 1980s, when Japanese companies snapped up American totems such as Rockefeller Center, the Pebble Beach golf course and Universal Studios. David J. Lynch, Washington Post, 30 Jan. 2024 That includes totems, flags, banners, umbrellas, skates, scooters and bicycles. Gieson Cacho, The Mercury News, 16 Feb. 2024 That, quite by accident, is what Juli Lynne Charlot did in late 1947, in the process creating a totem of midcentury material culture as evocative as the saddle shoe, the Hula-Hoop and the pink plastic lawn flamingo. Margalit Fox, New York Times, 4 Mar. 2024 On the other hand, those brief eight minutes of seeing the world’s fastest race cars firing down the Strip, bathed in the bright lights and framed by these sky-high totems of American excess and leisure, loud enough to feel in my bones — well, that was undeniably cool. David Hill, Rolling Stone, 14 Jan. 2024 Each lucky turn left them cheering more, grasping his shoulders like a totem, none of them believing that his luck might flip. Elliot Ackerman, WIRED, 6 Feb. 2024 Left intact was the building’s underground vault where couples and aspiring paramours from around the globe have secreted their totems and messages in tiny Love Boxes. Sam Roberts, New York Times, 12 Feb. 2024 Indians are Asians who are white-adjacent so at the bottom of the totem poll. Nicholas Confessore, New York Times, 20 Jan. 2024 Don’t bring chairs, balloons, totems, whistles, air horns, pets, chains or walkie-talkies either. Hanh Truong, Sacramento Bee, 31 Jan. 2024

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'totem.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Ojibwa oto·te·man his totem

First Known Use

1791, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of totem was in 1791


Dictionary Entries Near totem

Cite this Entry

“Totem.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


to·​tem ˈtōt-əm How to pronounce totem (audio)
: an object (as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan
: something usually carved or painted to represent a totem

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