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 objectb : a family or clan identified by a common totemic object
2 : one that serves as an emblem or revered symbol
totem was our Word of the Day on 06/07/2014. Hear the podcast!
Theme music by Joshua Stamper ©2006 New Jerusalem Music/ASCAP
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 of totem from the Web
These guys ain't played a game, always hurt, and at the bottom of the totem pole.
One sticking point is Sinn Fein’s demand for an act protecting the Irish language — a major totem for Irish nationalists that has raised the hackles of loyalists.
Two particularly important examples on display are a gold mask that appears to float up and spin in front of the visitor’s face, and a gold foil totem with images of the sun and immortal birds.
These guys ain’t played a game, [are] always hurt, and [are] at the bottom of the totem pole.
Along the shoulder, ashen wisps of tree trunks stand sentinel like totem poles.
Also spotted is a totem with Eric and Donald Trump Jr. — no wait, that’s Beavis and Butthead.
JonOne's custom design is a totem that blends urban art with the distiller's craft.
Slide back into the Ice Age or stand next to grizzlies in a massive forest in the Natural History Gallery or check out intricately carved totem poles in the First Peoples’ Gallery.
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.
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.
Origin and Etymology of totem
Ojibwa oto·te·man his totem
First Known Use: circa 1776See Words from the same year
TOTEM Defined for English Language Learners
Definition of totem for English Language Learners
: 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
TOTEM Defined for Kids
Definition of totem for Students
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
Seen and Heard
What made you want to look up totem? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).