Since "low man on the totem pole" is potentially ambiguous (and is possibly offensive to some), are there any good alternative idioms to mean someone of low rank who gets stuck with undesirable things?

"Drawing the short straw" doesn't quite fit since that implies randomness.

  • Hi and welcome :) Nice first post! I can think of terms, like "junior" or "subordinate", but none that mean "lowest". There's "second-fiddle", but that just means "next from the top". The only one I could think of that came close was FNG – Dewi Morgan Aug 1 '15 at 2:44
  • 1
    Don’t you think that anyone who find low man of the totem pole offensive would similarly find anything expressing the same sentiment equally offensive? – tchrist Aug 1 '15 at 12:10
  • @tchrist The ambiguity is my main concern. Also, the potentially offensive quality I considered about "low man on the totem pole" is not about the sentiment but about disrespecting sacred things. (And also see the linked question.) – jamesdlin Aug 1 '15 at 21:58

As I was writing the question, it occurred to me that "low in the pecking order" (or "last in the pecking order") could be a suitable substitute.


the bottom of the heap (idiom):

people who are at the bottom of the heap are poor and unsuccessful and have the lowest position in society

Source: CDO


Fans of the Dr. Seuss classic children's story Yertle the Turtle may appreciate the idiomatic use of "the turtle at the bottom" or "the turtle at the bottom of the stack" as an alternative to "low man on the totem pole." In Yertle the Turtle, King Yertle demands that the turtles in his pond stack themselves up to form a throne befitting his high and mighty status. Ultimately, Mack the turtle at the bottom of the stack topples the throne and overthrows Yertle—by burping.

The same idiom also suggests the undesirability of being the bottom-most turtle in the stack suggested by the idiom "turtles all the way down."

  • The turtle at the bottom is indeed in an undesirable position but my sympathy goes to the even more unfortunate turtles beneath. +1 BTW – Avon Aug 1 '15 at 10:59
  • On the other hand, it occurred to me that the turtle on the bottom ends up wielding a lot of power over the king, which counters the intended meaning. – jamesdlin Apr 15 '16 at 19:08

I like the greek lettering system: Alpha (alpha dog, top man, etc.), Beta (2nd in command)... Omega the last/least of the set.

  • Have you ever heard that used colloquially? – Brian Hitchcock Aug 1 '15 at 7:58
  • 4
    Two problems with this: 1) the concept of alpha/beta wolves is outdated and incorrect, so in time, using this terminology will make you look like an ignorant person, and 2) "Alpha and Omega" is one of the titles of Jesus Christ or of God in the Book of Revelations, so "omega" as the opposite of "alpha" wouldn't have the same connotation for audiences with some knowledge of the New Testament. – Rhymoid Aug 1 '15 at 10:10
  • "alpha and omega" means the greatest and the least, as in "god is everything" so no it shouldn't. Being the least or last is not and should not inherently be viewed as a negative thing. Being on the totem pole at least your on the pole. – Yeshe Aug 1 '15 at 13:53
  • @Yeshe Given its context, "the alpha and the omega" should be read as if they are synonymous with "the first and the last" and "the beginning and the end" instead (Revelation 21:6, 22:13), not as "greatest and least" or "biggest and smallest" or "top and bottom". – Rhymoid Aug 1 '15 at 16:06

How about peon? MW defines it as:

: a person who does hard or boring work for very little money : a person who is not very important in a society or organization

A grunt may also work.

: a person who does ordinary and boring work


An alternative I prefer is, "low rung on the ladder."

  • 1
    Welcome to ELU. This may be a valid and useful suggestion; can you expand on it a little? It's always a good idea to provide some supporting evidence with your answers, ideally in the form of cited sources or reputable published examples. – JHCL Oct 25 '15 at 22:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.