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

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 Between May 3 and May 20, the totem will stop in several cities and tribelands across the Pacific Northwest. Julia Lerner, oregonlive, 11 May 2022 Once upon a time, Americans really only used Madrid as a stopover, maybe spending one night en route to somewhere else—with a broadly recognizable skyline, iconic bridge, flying buttress or other totem easily conjured in the collective imagination. Christian L. Wright, WSJ, 29 Apr. 2022 Serpenti totem has assumed many forms in the 74 years since its debut in postwar Italy. New York Times, 4 Mar. 2022 France January inflation rate: 3.3% Prediction for 2022 rate: 2.8% France’s gastronomic totem, the baguette, reveals a lot about who’s feeling the pinch there., 15 Feb. 2022 After saving Allen and losing his steel powers because of mustard gas, Nate decides to finally join Zari 1.0 in the totem. Chancellor Agard,, 3 Mar. 2022 And so the book turned into a totem for Western progressives. Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ, 8 Apr. 2022 Her goal was a triptych of paintings that re-imagined the drip bag as personal totem. Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, 31 Mar. 2022 Mirapaul speculates in an interview printed in a flier accompanying the exhibition that the violin has been replaced by the electric guitar as a cultural totem. Steven Litt, cleveland, 13 Feb. 2022 See More

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.

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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Dictionary Entries Near totem

to tell (you) the truth



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Statistics for totem

Last Updated

16 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Totem.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 18 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for totem


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

More from Merriam-Webster on totem

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


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