Low man on the totem pole

  • Low man on the totem pole is an idiom that dates from the mid-twentieth century. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom low man on the totem pole, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.


    Low man on the totem pole describes a person who is of the lowest rank or least importance. For instance, in the military, a private is the low man on the totem pole. In a game of chess, the pawn is the low man on the totem pole. The expression low man on the totem pole refers to a Pacific Northwest Native American art form that consists of a carved tree trunk. Various stylized human and animal faces are carved into a tree trunk such as a western red cedar and the result is planted in the ground. Totem poles may welcome visitors, commemorate an important happening, or serve as a memorial. In truth, the position of a particular figure on a totem pole does not denote hierarchy. The idiom low man on the totem pole was coined by Fred Allen, an American comedian, during the 1940s.



    Unfortunately, athletics are the low man on the totem pole, but please, someone high upon the stanchion needs to make a decision and live with it, so we’re not left to speculate week to week. (The Examiner News)

    “As the newest member of the band—and by far the least important musician—you’re low man on the totem pole anyway,” I was told by our drummer. (The Wall Street Journal)

    Besides, as a mere corporal assigned to the project’s Special Engineer Detachment—“I was low man on the totem pole,” Lax says—he wasn’t authorized to witness the test. (Smithsonian Magazine)

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