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?

  • If I were you, I'd change the title. After all you're really asking "why" the writer preferred/chose/picked totem in the phrase: It's a totem of the problem. If the term totem has positive or negative connotations that is a secondary issue, that remains in the body of the question.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 12:53
  • Please don't change the title as it will make my answer look bad
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 14:17
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    I disagree ML - Y.O. often asks searching questions, such as this one (i.e.: the question stated in the title), and in the question, [as an exemplar](https:/) he goes on to give a particular example, perhaps from the press. (Indeed the whole example her re: Hillary etc, could be deleted, and all of the question would still stand erect.)
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 14:19

4 Answers 4


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.

  • @Medica. I simply cut and pasted the quoted part from Time magazine Oct.10 issue. The article was written by Zeke J. Miller. I tracked back the article and rechecked the passage. Again, it reads “Created to help track the untold number of documents produced for independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigations of the Clintons, the stamp is a totem of the problem that has dogged Hillary Clinton since she ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000.” Do you think this is a typo of “token”? Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 9:57
  • A typo usually involves one letter (or a switch of two). This is more likely a little blunder on the part of the writer. Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 9:59
  • Ah! outstanding point! "Token".
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:04
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    Well done, the edit has effectively disproved my interpretation! I deliberately ignored "the stamp" bit. I'll leave my answer as it "supports" yours. (Who cares about the votes)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:21
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    Y.O.: for the record: in my opinion it is not a "typing error": in my opinion the author is so stupid he deliberately wrote "totem", which is wrong. It's exactly like saying "I'm on tenderhooks" or "to the lowest dredges". i.e.: untrammeled stupidity.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 14:23

Note - as Medica has identified it's simply an error for "token".

There's nothing more to it.

Regarding "totems" (just for the hell of it...)

ie, providing answers to the other questions you ask...

Yoichi, I feel

(a) that is an extremely poor use of the word "totem".

{What word to use there in that sentence? It's not a "symbol" and has no connection to "symbol". Really the sentence should say something like: "... an example of the type of problem which has ...". Another typical phrase is "it's the prime example of the sort of problems...". For example, it would be completely strange to say "the 500SL is a totem of Mercedes cars," because, the "500SL" is not in any way a "totem" (symbol, monument) - it's just, literally, "one of the cars!" There's utterly no connection to symbol, monument, marker, etc. A "totem," "monument" or "symbol" of Mercedes cars might be something like -- oh -- their famous headquarters building, or indeed the three-pointed logo they use. It's nonsensical to describe "a thing", one of the things in question, as a "totem" or other symbol-related concept.}

(b) regarding your question, can "totem" be used in both a negative and positive conversation?

The answer is sure, absolutely.

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

Not really, no. You know what an actual totem pole is in native Americas culture...

enter image description here

(It can also be any other "totem" object, particularly associated with concepts like "shamans" and so on in native cultures. I'm sure you've read up on this.)

If you're going to use the word figuratively, one would use it based on what a totem is. So, exactly as in the defintion you quote, it's something (an artefact) of powerful spiritual or perhaps religious symbolism, which particularly (say) brings a group together.

Negative examples abound: I believe the Nazis before WW2 made a "totem" of some particular blood-stained flag from an incident where some nazis got killed in a street protest. And positive examples abound, you could say, oh, the new Apple building has become a real totem of their corporate drive, or whatever. (Proving that totems can look totally stupid :) )

In short (a) the example is a very bad use of the word. (b) in answer to your other question, you could certainly talk of the concept in either a very positive or very negative setting.

{Looking at the original "totemic objects" in sundry native societies around the world .. think of some object the "shaman or with doctor uses" .. I would imagine that very much, sometimes those were essentially evil or entirely bad and/or warlike! Perhaps being the "totem" for something like "our ability to slaughter that damned tribe over the hill!" ... sort of thing. As opposed to the more positive and cuddly "our totem pole gives us energy to grow fantastic corn together!" vibe.}

  • heh! good one!!
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:26
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    Still... a typo would normally involve one letter, here we have two; T and M. Admittedly the N and M keys lie next to each other, but the T and K are on different rows. Medica doesn't mention it's a typo in her post.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:43
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    Hi Mari-Lou: I am, here, uninterested in the terminology of different types of "printing / writing / word processing errors". I just refer to them as "typos" as that for me is the "least-important" implication. ie, it's of no consequence - it is "just" a typo. (It's extremely likely the writer is stupid and deliberately wrote "totem" incorrectly: but it's sort of not worth going in to you know? :) Dismiss it as a "typo" and move on.)
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:50
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    "a typo would normally involve one letter" I really don't see that. "typos" or "typographical errors" have referred to different things in different print technology eras. with modern word processing / spell checking, there are zero "typos" of the traditional kind: all "typos" now are things like "brought" for "bought" or "astronaut" for "ergonomics" because the spell checker "didn't know" -- you know? IMO this is still referred to as "typos".
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:51
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    FWIW: A typo is just a typographical error. The term does not apply only to single-character errors, and certainly not only to single-letter errors.
    – Drew
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 14:07

If one looks at the linked article, the opening paragraph says

Buried in the 10,000 pages of documents released by the Clinton Presidential Library

further ahead you read the following lines.

The Library made the documents available Friday, completing the release of 30,000 pages of previously restricted White House records on everything from the failed HillaryCare push to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

If you were to make a pile of those papers, it might very well remind you of a totem (pole). The writer is using the term and imagery of a totem (pole) as a figure of speech in the phrase quoted by the OP.

It's a totem of the problem that's dogged Hillary Clinton since she ran for the Senate in 2000.

The over 30,000 sheets of paper represent the fourteen years of controversy that have dogged Hillary Clinton's chances of being elected as the first woman President of the United States. Despite her staff's vain attempts to cover internal leaks, scandals, and shady dealings, they continue to haunt and blemish the Clinton administration's reputation between 1993 and 2001.

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    You know, while this is an excellent thought, truly, it has nothing to do with this. It's just a typo for "token". It's that simple. (Note - you're thinking of a totem pole in particular; there are all sort so "totem" objects.)
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:07
  • 1
    Really interesting, but in that case, I'd say totem pole is more appropriate. Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:08
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    Please note too that the use of the word token (typo'd to "totem") has absolutely nothing to do with the whole pile of 10 or 30 thousand documents. The writer is referring to one specific scandalous document (apparently some document: "one bearing the stamp 'Document Produced To Independent Counsel.'")
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 10:09

I know this is an old post, but the Time article uses totem, as it refers to the customized stamp "Document Produced to Independent Counsel", to mean emblem (emblematic). The meaning is in the following paragraph: "Created to help track the untold number of documents produced for independent counsel Ken Starr's investigations of the Clintons, the stamp is a totem of the problem that has dogged Hillary Clinton since she ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000: her history." In other words, that stamp symbolizes the problem plaguing Hillary Clinton since 2000, her history.

Merriam-Webster defines totem in definition 2 : one that serves as an emblem or revered symbol.

The following is an example of totem used similarly:

The latest totem in our hyperpartisan and politically polarized culture war is the terminology around race relations in America. Washington Post Jun 23, 2021

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