June 20, 2011

"Low man on totem pole" in NCIS

In this TV episode, NCIS investigators discover a murder victim: a lowly seaman dressed as a captain. The following bit occurs:

NCIS:  "Two-Faced" 4/4/11 Recap

By Matthew BraswellAutopsy: Palmer wonders how someone so low on the totem pole could be so decorated. Ducky corrects the usage of totem pole, saying Native Americans regarded individuals low on totem poles in high regard.Some fact-checking on this claim:

Totem poleVertical order of images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. This idea is so pervasive that it has entered into common parlance with the phrase "low man on the totem pole." This phrase is indicative of the most common belief of ordering importance, that the higher figures on the pole are more important or prestigious. A counterargument frequently heard is that figures are arranged in a "reverse hierarchy" style, with the most important representations being on the bottom, and the least important being on top. Actually there have never been any restrictions on vertical order, many poles have significant figures on the top, others on the bottom, and some in the middle. Other poles have no vertical arrangement at all, consisting of a lone figure atop an undecorated column.Someone asked about the NCIS scene on an English Language and Usage website. One respondent repeated the Wikipedia info above. Another added this:

“Low on the totem pole”?  Good or bad?Well, there is always some confusion about this idiom here. This idiom was introduced by an American named Fred Allen some where in the mid 1940s. He actually used it to depict something of least importance, which was evidently proved to be wrong.Comment:  I don't have any independent evidence for these claims. But I've read books on totem poles and don't remember anything about the order mattering.

If I had to guess, I'd say the order isn't a matter of "importance." The poles are telling stories so they may be in a chronological order.

For more on totem poles, see Goofy Moments in GREEN LANTERN #79 and Cowboys & Findians in The Dudesons.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would say it might even be in chronological order, but the concept of it as being "highest is most important" has more to do with the Western notion of the value of figureheads.