Noun – Totem
This word comes from Algonquian, a Native American language.
A totem is a plant, animal, object, symbol, or idea that represents a close group of people (like a clan, a family, or a subculture) and seems sacred to them.
In its strictest sense, a totem is a plant or animal from which the clan or family believes they descended, either biologically or spiritually.
Part of speech:
Noun, the countable kind: “the bear is their totem,” “they added their totems to their signatures.”
The plural is “totems.”
When you need an adjective, you can pick “totemic,” pronounced “toe TEM ick,” or “totemistic,” pronounced “toe duh MISS tick.”
The adverb is “totemically.”
The noun for a whole system involving totems is “totemism” (TOE duh mizz um).
And you’re probably familiar with “totem poles:” literally, poles like these, and figuratively, systems of importance, with the most important people or things on top and the least important on the bottom.
How to use it:
When the words “emblem,” “symbol,” “token,” and “representation” don’t express enough sacredness, pick “totem.”
Say that one thing, person, or idea is a totem of, to, or for something: “Elton John is a totem of popular music.” “The Bell Jar is a totem to serious young writers everywhere.” “Thanks to a memorable joke, the doughnut is now a totem for Mitch Hedberg fans.”
“As the businesses folded over time, the [giant fiberglass statues] remained, mysterious totems to nothing.”
— Robert Simonson, New York Times, 14 August 2019
“Though many in L.A. see fur as an avatar of cruelty, to others it remains a powerful totem of cultural heritage, historical continuity and Hollywood glamour.”
— Staff, Los Angeles Times, 28 August 2019