Totem pole?

中国日报网 2014-08-05 10:50



Totem pole?

Reader question:

An unemployed man who can only find part-time jobs says he is “at the bottom of the totem pole”. What does it mean?

My comments:

He means to say his social position is very low. Without a regular job, he doesn’t have a chance to make much money, regularly at any rate and therefore has little chance to get ahead, socially speaking.

Let’s hope that some day, he gets a regular job and gets out of the bottom dwelling – and climb a rung or two up the totem pole, again socially speaking.

The totem pole, you see, is a large tree trunk which North American Indians use as cultural symbols. On the pole are carved images of gods and legends which are called totems – and which signify, among other things hierarchical structure of their society.

The “totem pole” as a symbol of social hierarchy in society at large was popularized by American author H. Allen Smith, though, in a best selling humor book titled “Low man on the totem pole”. Allen was speaking freely and generally there of course. He does not mean to say that the carved figures on the bottom of the totem pole to be low in rank or stature. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. In a real totem pole, the lower positions are usually occupied by more important gods and legends. This only makes sense because the bottom of a tree trunk is larger in diameter, thus enabling larger images to be carved therein. Also, the bottom of the pole is close to people on the ground. Totems down low therefore look large – larger, that is, than if they were at the top of the pole due to their distance.

At any rate, Smith coined the expression “low man on the totem pole” in 1941 and it caught on. Today, if someone says they’re the low man on the totem pole or any project, they mean to say they’re the common man – their rankings, if they’ve got any, are low.

They are, quite frankly, unimportant.

The fact that Smith may have got it all wrong in the very beginning no longer matters – that’s the thing with language. Eventually, it’s common usage that reigns supreme.

Alright, here are examples of “totem pole” as social hierarchy in use:

1. The Lakers elected not to re-sign much of their training and basketball operations staff this summer. It was a total housecleaning move which seems pretty insane considering the vast amount of success the Lakers have enjoyed for the past... well, ever, but especially recently.

Kobe Bryant is generally considered a pretty hard-hearted guy, what with the poisonous snake moniker, ruthless desire to win and cool, calculated demeanor, not to mention the jaw-jut.

How are those two things related? Turns out Kobe Bryant was willing to do the right thing by the video staff, even if the Lakers decided to go in another direction. From the Los Angeles Times:

Kobe Bryant insisted on giving some of the team’s playoff bonus to two members of the Lakers’ video department whose contracts were not renewed after the season. Chris Bodaken and Patrick O’Keefe split about $65,000 of the Lakers’ playoff bonus.


He always looks out for people who are lower on the totem pole,” O’Keefe said.

- Kobe Bryant, Lakers help out former team staff,, August 19, 2011.

2. Dear Editor: I read The Tuscaloosa News and listen to television news everyday, and I still can’t find anyone or anything I can blame my mistakes on. I wish I could; then I could say they made me do it.

I started off in life at the bottom of the totem pole, and I still am there. Every time I move up a notch, something knocks me back down. While growing up in Hale County, we were sharecroppers. I was in the cotton fields doing a man’s job when I was 7 years old. We started to school when the landowner said we could. I never went a full year of school in my life. When black people got their civil rights, poor people also got theirs. People organized, and plants and farms started paying decent wages. People, black and white, worked and sent their children to school to get educated.

Today, we have the Mexican people to pick on. When I was in the Navy, we had a lot of Mexicans on our ship. They manned the guns like everyone else. There are Mexicans in every branch of service that have fought and died for this country.

What I am trying to say is don’t cut off the hand that feeds you. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, young men from families who could afford to went to Canada and afterward came back home. They wouldn’t fight for their country. Mexican people and black people did fight for this country.

- LETTER: People of all races should come together, by Bobby Fields,, November 8, 2011.

3. The manager of an Indiana Pizza Hut has been offered his job back after claiming he was fired for refusing to open the restaurant on Thanksgiving.

Tony Rohr, who worked his way up from cook to manager at the restaurant, in Elkhart, Ind., over 10 years, said the company that owns the store dictated it be open for the holiday, and he refused.

“I said, ‘Why can’t we be the company that stands up and says we care about our employees and they can have the day off?’,” Rohr told WSBT 22. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only two days that they’re closed in the whole year and they’re the only two days that those people are guaranteed to have off to spend with their families.”

After news of the reported firing made national headlines Wednesday night, Pizza Hut announced on its Facebook page that Rohr had been offered his job back.

“We fully respect an employee’s right to not work on a holiday, which is why the vast majority of Pizza Huts in America are closed on Thanksgiving. As a result, we strongly recommended that the local franchisee reinstate the store manager and they have agreed. We look forward to them welcoming Tony back to the team,” the statement read.

Earlier Wednesday, a Pizza Hut rep told WSBT 22 that the decision to remain open on Thanksgiving wasn’t up to Rohr, and that it came from the corporate level.

Rohr wrote a letter venting his frustrations, saying: “I do not resign. However, I accept that the refusal to comply with this greedy, immoral request means the end of my tenure with this company.” He added, “I hope you realize that it is the people at the bottom of the totem pole that make your life possible.”

- Pizza Hut offers job back to manager fired for allegedly refusing to open on Thanksgiving,, November 28, 2013.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Cash cow?

A dose of his own medicine

Kicking the can down the road?

Food chain?

Follow the money?


(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)


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