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

The number 13 becomes a chilling totem as Eddie begins to put together evidence and clues. Dallas News, "The serial killer is on the jury in Steve Cavanagh's outstanding new thriller, 'Thirteen'," 20 Aug. 2019 Borate rods have been used successfully to preserve everything from totem and telephone poles to log homes. Jeanne Huber, Washington Post, "Two enemies of outdoor wooden sculptures: Rain and sun," 24 June 2019 Not everyone in Sela pri Kamniku was impressed by Schlegl’s totem to populism. Palko Karasz,, "Slovenia has another Trump statue. This one has vampire teeth.," 31 Aug. 2019 The keeper of the totem for the last dozen years has been Thomas Lim, a podiatrist who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and studied at UCLA. Roger Vincent,, "The Silver Lake Happy Foot Sad Foot sign is getting the boot," 12 July 2019 The Carmel Board of Public Works voted last week to pay $64,125 to change the lettering on the north side of the totem poll to avoid confusion. Natalia E. Contreras, Indianapolis Star, "Carmel will pay to add its name to Westfield's welcome sign," 13 Aug. 2019 In most ways, ABLSS mirrors classic sketch totems like Chappelle's Show, Inside Amy Schumer, and Saturday Night Live. Wired, "A Black Lady Sketch Show," 2 Aug. 2019 Atop the Italian managerial totem-pole, and indeed the footballing world, Rocco then decided to conquer the final Italian frontier - Torino., "Nereo Rocco: 'El Paron', the Pioneer of Catenaccio & Forgotten Great of Italian Football," 30 July 2019 For the sort of people who make our news and drive our debates, the university has become an obsession and a totem. Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review, "College Does Not Make You a Better Person," 25 July 2019

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

17 Sep 2019

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Time Traveler for totem

The first known use of totem was in 1791

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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 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

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

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miscellaneous remnants or debris

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