totem

noun
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 Towering several feet high, the sculpture is a vibrant totem of color and pattern. New York Times, "The T List: Five Things We Recommend This Week," 14 Jan. 2021 In the Second World War, Bugs became every put-upon G.I.’s totem and hero. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, "The Mixed-Up Masters of Early Animation," 21 Dec. 2020 The plaque, which was inlaid into the floor of the pavilion, was once a part of a larger totem to Davis but was reduced in size and stature after the downtown park was redeveloped in 2016. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Statue of Gov. Pete Wilson returned to downtown San Diego," 2 Dec. 2020 The plaque, which was inlaid into the floor of the pavilion, was once a part of a larger totem to Davis but was reduced in size and stature after the downtown park was redeveloped in 2016. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Statue of Gov. Pete Wilson returned to downtown San Diego," 2 Dec. 2020 The plaque, which was inlaid into the floor of the pavilion, was once a part of a larger totem to Davis but was reduced in size and stature after the downtown park was redeveloped in 2016. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Statue of Gov. Pete Wilson returned to downtown San Diego," 2 Dec. 2020 The plaque, which was inlaid into the floor of the pavilion, was once a part of a larger totem to Davis but was reduced in size and stature after the downtown park was redeveloped in 2016. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Statue of Gov. Pete Wilson returned to downtown San Diego," 2 Dec. 2020 Einstein matters less here as a physicist, however, than as a cultural totem, a thinker who saw a world beyond our knowledge. Michael Gorra, The New York Review of Books, "The Sense of an Ending," 17 Nov. 2020 In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists rallied in defense of a Robert E. Lee statue on the University of Virginia campus as a totem for their fears of demographic change. Matt Ford, The New Republic, "Racial Tolerance Was on the Ballot—and Won," 6 Nov. 2020

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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Last Updated

28 Jan 2021

Cite this Entry

“Totem.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/totem. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.

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More Definitions for totem

totem

noun

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

totem

noun
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

Nglish: Translation of totem for Spanish Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about totem

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