Both animals are marsupials, but possums are more closely related to kangaroos. But here’s where it gets confusing: in North America, people often shorten opossum to possum when talking about the creatures prowling around the backyard at night. One news source described an animal that you might see “wobbling across your yard at night” or “scurrying down the pavement with a batch of babies clutching onto its back.” What is the name of this beast? Without hesitation, you might exclaim “An opossum!” However, another person might call it a possum. Is there a difference between an opossum and a possum? Yes, there is. They are entirely different animals.
Possum vs. Opossum
In North America, the animal officially called an opossum is a white and gray marsupial of the order Didelphimorphia. English colonists living in Jamestown derived the word from its equivalent in Powhatan, a language spoken by the Virginia Algonquian tribe. Literally, the word means “white dog or beast” in Powhatan. John Smith spelled it “opassum,” but William Strachey spelled it “aposoum.”
Possums, on the other hand, live in Australia, New Guinea, Sulawesi, New Zealand, and China. Their name does derive from opossum. Sir Joseph Banks, a British botanist, thought they looked enough like the American opossum to give them a similar name. However, kangaroos and other Australian marsupials are closer relations than American opossums. Possums belong to the Diprotodontia order.
So, in general, you can use opossum when referring to the American marsupial. Notice how some authors capitalized on the traits of this interesting creature in the following quotes. The first one is from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. You know he is talking about the opossum of North America because he makes reference to its unique tendency to faint as if dead when threatened:
Another author, Amy Rowland, makes reference to the grayish-white color of the opossum. (Possums are brown.) This quote is from The Transcriptionist.
In a book about her life with her late husband Steve Irwin, Terri Irwin talks about her view of opossums.
Wait a minute, did you notice that she used possums and opossums in the same paragraph? Terri is an American, but she owns a zoo in Queensland, Australia. To which animal is she referring? From context, you can conclude that it’s “the only North American marsupial.” In fact, it is quite common for people to drop the O of opossum in speech and in print. Let’s look at some examples. You will see possum written in two ways. Tina Fey, author of Bossypants, uses the term possum. Once again, we can use context clues (torpor) to guess that it is the North American variety. On the other hand, Bill Watterson makes it clear that he is dropping the O of opossum by adding an apostrophe in its place. In another quote from Terri Irwin, context clues suggest that this time she is talking about the Australian possum species.
How Do You Spell and Pronounce Possum
Garner’s Modern American Usage points out that possum, pronounced poss-uhm, is actually the more common of the two spellings for North Americans.
A Google Ngram search reveals an alternating pattern. Opossum was on top as recently as the 1970s, but possum has the lead now. Opossum, pronounced uh-poss-uhm, is still favored for formal writing. Does this cause confusion? It depends on the audience and the writer or speaker. For instance, most would assume that an Australian saying “possum” is referring to the animal that lives in his native country. However, if an American says “possum” to an Australian, it might be unclear which animal is the subject of discussion. Remember that both possum and opossum only have one P. The most common error is to double that letter. To make the plural of opossum and possum, just add S to the end.
”Playing Possum” Idiom
Playing possum is an idiom that refers to the opossum’s characteristic way of responding to threats. When confronted, the animal involuntarily faints in shock for anywhere from several minutes to four hours. Its body goes limp, it drools, and it even emits an odor that imitates the smell of a decaying animal. In English, the phrase is used when someone pretends to be asleep, dead, or ignorant of a situation.
The Japan Times used the phrase in advice about how to avoid a bear attack:
The Times Live reported how an athlete used “playing possum” as a strategy to win:
The final example is from a book called With No Steps to Follow by David Allen Barton.
Opossums and Possums As Characters
Australian author Mem Fox features the possum in a picture book called Possum Magic. In order to protect a fellow possum named Hush, Grandma Poss uses magic to make her invisible. After some time, Hush grows tired of not being able to see herself. The two possums have to travel across Australia to find a magic food that will reverse her invisibility. The journey is full of adventures for the two lovable creatures.
Gary Bogue, the former curator of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, California, wrote a book called There’s an Opossum in My Backyard. This children’s story is about a baby opossum that falls from her mother’s back into the backyard of the Green family, breaking her tail in the process. She has quite a few memorable escapades as she steals food from the dog’s bowl, almost gets captured by an owl, and makes friends with other animals and the Green family.
Possums appear in poetry too. In “Possum Come A-Knocking” Nancy Van Laan uses rhymes to tell the story of a grandmother who was sitting in her rocking chair knitting when an opossum knocks at the front door. A small child tries to tell her family that it’s a possum sporting a top hat and vest who is knocking, but they don’t see anything when they open the door. No one believes the poor child because the possum hides behind a tree when the adults come to answer the knock. It seems the possum was playing possum! What does that expression mean?
In the article mentioned at the beginning, the final clue to the identity of the mysterious backyard visitor was this: “if you so much as say a word to one of them, they freeze in their tracks, bear their teeth, and start hissing and groveling with mouths dripping in spit.” Yes, it’s the opossum. However, Americans might call it a possum, much to the confusion of their friends from the Southern Hemisphere who envision a rather cuddly creature when they hear that word. If you are writing formally or you are not sure whether your audience will understand which animal you mean, make sure you spell opossum with an O unless you are talking about the marsupial from down under. However, if you are talking to a fellow American, he will likely know exactly what a possum is. He might even think it’s “good eatin’.” And if he is not familiar with the other species, it might be fun to explain the possum-opossum difference.