to·​tem | \ˈtō-təm \

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 with a new Los Angeles showroom, Farrow & Ball hopes to change that, one totem at a time. Asad Syrkett, Curbed, "Can Farrow & Ball’s new LA showroom change what people think of paint stores?," 30 Nov. 2018 The three of us pile out of the truck in a fantastical spot, a deep canyon where erosion has turned the red-tinged canyon walls into totems. Jason Harper, Condé Nast Traveler, "On the Hunt for Dinosaur Bones in the Gobi Desert," 20 July 2018 Jewels and art always make for better visual movie totems than mere cash. Stephanie Zacharek, Time, "Could Ocean’s 8 Mark the Return of the Great Glam Caper?," 3 May 2018 The dolls loomed large as objects of beauty and as totems of the past. Meryl Gordon, Town & Country, "The Curious Life and Shocking Death of Huguette Clark," 21 May 2014 We’re seated in his office, which is dark and cool and full of totems from his wide-ranging career. Mickey Rapkin, Town & Country, "The Horror of Jason Blum," 17 Oct. 2018 The reimagined four-posters replace overwrought Victorian spindles with unconventional, totem-like columns. Kathryn O’shea-evans, WSJ, "Modern Romance: State-of-the-Art Spindle Beds," 4 Oct. 2018 Over this suffocating uniformity, the tree looms like a totem of spiritual rebellion, its spreading branches as threatening to the social order as Inga’s unfettered cruelty. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times, "Review: An Icelandic Suburb Hides Deep Dysfunction ‘Under the Tree’," 5 July 2018 An example: A hundred yards from my partner’s new address, to my giddy delight, sat Schaller & Weber and Heidelberg Restaurant — side by side, the twin totems of what was once the mighty German-American stronghold of Yorkville. Robert Simonson, New York Times, "My Upper East Side Story: Pizza, Schnitzel, a Piano Bar," 12 Apr. 2018

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

circa 1776, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for totem

Ojibwa oto·te·man his totem

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Statistics for totem

Last Updated

10 Dec 2018

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Time Traveler for totem

The first known use of totem was circa 1776

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More Definitions for totem



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 \

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

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with totem

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for totem

Spanish Central: Translation of totem

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

Comments on totem

What made you want to look up totem? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


a knickknack or trinket

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