Learn English – Can the word “totem” be used as both a respectful and troublesome symbol


Today’s (Oct. 10) Time magazine article titled “Hillary Clinton’s Burden of History” begins with the following passage:

“Everything old is new again for the Clintons, as documents reveal
White House secrets.

Buried in the documents released by the Clinton Presidential Library
Friday is one bearing the stamp “Document Produced To Independent
Counsel.” It's a totem of the problem that's dogged Hillary
Clinton since she ran for the Senate in 2000."


I was under impression that the word, “totem” is basically used as a respectable object in positive way.

OALE defines ‘totem’ as an animal or other natural object that is chosen and respected as a special symbol of a tribe or family.

Collins Cobuild English Dictionary defines ‘totem’ as “In some societies, a family totem is the particular animal, plant or natural object which they regard as a special symbol and which they have spiritual significance.

I think “a totem” in the above article is used figuratively, but I wonder if the “totem” which is the symbolic object for the group’s respect can be used as a negative symbol for undesirable object/matter such as “a totem of the problem.” Can “totem” be used in both positive and negative way like this?

Best Answer

I believe the writer meant token:

Something serving as an indication, proof, or expression of something else; a sign. (AHDEL)

Googling a totem of the problem yields only one result (repeatedly): that sentence about Hillary Clinton.

Googling a totum of the yields: otter, Mother, Northwest, United States, tree, group, horned god, great blue heron, goddess, emperor, modern age, and other similarly appropriate results. So I think it's safe to say "No, it shouldn't be used that way."

I did find this sentence, which confirms your suspicion:

His contract looked like a millstone rather than a totem of the Angels' revival as they slogged through two disappointing seasons. - New York Times, Oct 1, 2014.

Edited to add: The article starts by describing a stamp, a rubber stamp, of the words “Document Produced To Independent Counsel” (meaning the documents were turned over to an investigating body). This stamp is an emblem, a token, a sign... and it might have been a clever phrase, considering a token is also

A piece of stamped metal used as a substitute for currency: subway tokens.