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

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 Several tall intricate totems have just returned from a foundry in North Carolina, which has taken over the casting work Drumm once performed in his shop. Jennifer Conn, Akron Reporter,, "Akron artist Don Drumm's iconic sun still shining after 60 years," 26 Apr. 2018 The farm bill is a Beltway totem that features handouts for agriculture interests and funding for food stamps. The Editorial Board, WSJ, "A Food Fight Worth Having," 8 July 2018 On the top of the hip-hop totem poll, less is more has also become an abiding concept for Kanye West. Dan Deluca,, "Welcome to Tierra Whack's 'Whack World': The North Philly rapper only needs 15 minutes of your time," 22 June 2018 But after a 4-0, series-clinching victory over the Dodgers on Wednesday afternoon, manager Dave Roberts pointed to another totem in Lester’s possession. Andy Mccullough,, "Jon Lester silences Dodgers bats in Cubs' 4-0 victory," 20 June 2018 But in a one-off story about a young Elvis Presley, the death totem was discovered and obtained in an underwhelming fashion this week. Sydney Bucksbaum, The Hollywood Reporter, "DC TV Watch: 'The Flash' Producer Shoots Down Mystery Girl Theories," 16 Mar. 2018 Each Healthyish tote came stuffed with some of our favorite products, from CAP Beauty's portable matcha sticks to Areaware's striking beeswax totem candles. The Healthyish Team, Bon Appetit, "12 Things We Loved About Healthyish Homecoming," 13 June 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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Phrases Related to totem

low man on the totem pole

Statistics for totem

Last Updated

3 Sep 2018

Look-up Popularity

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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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).


one that holds something together

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