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The background for this question is that I'm watching the latest episode of NCIS, and in this episode it is mentioned that the term "Low on the totem pole" actually is a good thing, reserved for the most honored carvings. As such, saying that someone is "pretty low on the totem pole" is a compliment, not a way of saying that you're low on rank or importance.

However, I haven't been able to find any sources online that says the same, and it seems most usages of the term use it in the meaning I thought it had, ie. low importance, rank, or similar.

So what is right?

Does the term "low on the totem pole" mean "low importance or rank", or does it mean "high importance or rank"?

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The term isn't American Indian in origin, it merely uses imagery taken from the popular (and slightly incorrect) view of American Indian culture. –  user1579 Apr 7 '11 at 17:35
It's a good question, but my preference is to just stop using the confused cliché altogether. –  jbelacqua Apr 8 '11 at 0:21
It's good to know the real indegenous meaning and use of the images on real-life totem poles. However, nearly every cliche has major issues with it if you look hard enough. This cliche is just too useful for me to give up. –  T.E.D. Oct 4 '11 at 23:04
This is general reference. –  Hugo Oct 5 '11 at 7:05
I have always understood the expression in the conventional vernacular sense, but today I happened to use the expression in conversation with someone who is of native American background. I got the clear impression she considered it to be culturally insensitive for me to use the expression. From my point of view, I was simply using an expression that I have grown up with. I would like to understand her point of view, and whether, in general, it is considered by native Americans to be an inappropriate, insensitive, and/or insulting expression. –  user35805 Jan 15 '13 at 23:58

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

From Wikipedia:

Vertical order of images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. This idea is so pervasive that it has entered into common parlance with the phrase "low man on the totem pole." This phrase is indicative of the most common belief of ordering importance, that the higher figures on the pole are more important or prestigious. A counterargument frequently heard is that figures are arranged in a "reverse hierarchy" style, with the most important representations being on the bottom, and the least important being on top. Actually, [among Native American totem poles], there have never been any restrictions on vertical order -- many poles have significant figures on the top, others on the bottom, and some in the middle. Other poles have no vertical arrangement at all, consisting of a lone figure atop an undecorated column.

Regardless of the origin, the term "low man on the totem pole" is generally understood to mean LEAST important. Using it to mean most important would probably just lead to confusion.

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OK, thanks, I take your answer as saying that the idiom conveys low rank or importance by convention, not by definition, since there doesn't seem to be a clear original meaning of it. Did I get that right? –  Lasse V. Karlsen Apr 7 '11 at 17:30
Yep. That's about it. –  Kevin Apr 7 '11 at 17:31
A similar phrase is, "low rung on the ladder." –  MrHen Apr 7 '11 at 17:50
@Kevin I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on Dyani1891's answer that contradicts yours. –  ErikE Nov 27 '12 at 9:49
@Kris the other answers haven't changed in two years, so I think I'll keep mine as it is as well. Unless you can provide something to show that the phrase "low on the totem pole" is used to mean something different than what my answer says. –  Kevin May 15 '13 at 18:34

I study and carve Northwest Coast design or what you call totemic designs. My family comes from the region as well. The phrase "low man on the totem pole" is indeed taken the wrong way all the time. The most revered or "main" character of the story being told is the lowest or closest to earth. You want to show respect by it being closest to you. If you see people on the top of totem poles, it is most definitely not a sign of honor, it is shame, calling them "Shame Poles." The least favored/honored of the story is always on the top. I hope this assists you in solving any mysteries on this misunderstood saying.

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Do you have any thoughts on Kevin's answer, which states that position does not confer any significance? –  ErikE Nov 27 '12 at 9:50
"Low man on the totem pole." Closest to the earth....The strength to hold up the rest....The one with the most balance to support all others." –  user44260 May 15 '13 at 0:30

As generally used, "low on the totem pole" means at the bottom of a heirarchy, hence low in rank. There are similar sayings about relative position on a ladder. As one is promoted (rises in rank), one ascends the ladder. I was unaware that the real totem pole reverses that order.

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“The real totem pole does not reverse the order. The misused idiom reverses the correct hierarchy in the real totem pole.” (The preceding was incorrectly suggested (and worse, approved) as an edit, rather than as added as a comment.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 18 at 23:35

There is a resource about the low man on the totem pole.

In it, it explains that the highest part of the totem pole was carved by the least experienced carver, because the lower parts of the pole are the parts that are most likely to be viewed, thus:

...the bottom of all totem pole is sometimes the best carved part of the whole pole. Meaning wise, the low man has a much or more meaning than other figures.

So while the general meaning seems to be that higher is better, traditionally for totem poles - as is explained by NCIS - lower is better.

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could you take the time to form an actual answer from this? If not, I'll happily edit your answer to add in the salient points from the link you've posted. –  Matt E. Эллен Oct 5 '11 at 14:21

Well, there is always some confusion about this idiom here. This idiom was introduced by an American named Fred Allen some where in the mid 1940s. He actually used it to depict something of least importance, which was evidently proved to be wrong, as a Totem pole in reality holds the most important ones in the lower order.

So if you go by what the idiom was actually supposed to mean, it would denote something of lower importance as mentioned by PSU and Kevin. Rather if you go by its meaning in literal sense, it would denote that of higher importance.

However, I would personally prefer using it to denote something of higher importance. (It is strictly a matter of personal opinion though)

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"An American named Fred Allen"? That's rather like saying, "a Brit named Laurence Olivier". –  Malvolio Nov 27 '12 at 2:03
It is not matter of personal opinion if you want to be understood. –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 6:10

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