Printable Version
Pronunciation: to-dêm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. An object, usually a plant or animal, that serves as an emblem of a family, clan, or other group, as the lion is the totem of the Detroit football team or the eagle, that of the Philadelphia team. 2. Any revered symbol, emblem, or insignia.

Notes: Grumble, mumble, bumble!The association of some animal or plant with a family, clan, or tribe is not uncommon throughout the world. As a result, anthropologists have derived a family of words describing this practice. The adjective is totemic and, yes, the adverb, totemically, has been used several times. The practice itself is totemism and even this noun has an adjective, totemistic. A member of a totem organization is a totemist. Associating yourself, your family, team or other organization symbolically with an animal or plant is totemization.

In Play: In the US, this word is seldom heard outside the phrase 'totem pole', but a totem is actually a plant or animal selected to symbolize a group or individual: "Maria Endd has a picture of a turtle on her stationery as though it were a totem reflecting how fast she works." The meaning of this word has been extended to include almost anything of symbolic importance: "The system of seniority in Congress is a totem that will never be altered in any way."

Word History: Today's Good Word seems to have come from Ojibwe, an Algonquian language still spoken by about 35,000 people along the eastern US-Canadian border. It was mentioned as totam in 1791, but by the mid-1800s it was already spelled totem. The root seems to have been oode "a clan, insignia of a clan". The initial T apparently resulted from misanalyzing a possessive form such as indoodem "my clan, my totem" or odoodem "his clan, totem". D and T are identical except the vocal cords vibrate when we pronounce D, so the shift from D to T is easily accounted for. (Thanks today to Cathy Hilborn Feng of Hong Kong for suggesting this truly American Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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