Low man on the totem pole

Low man on the totem pole is an idiom that dates from the mid-twentieth century. 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.

Examples

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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