- Although many people use the words possum and opossum interchangeably, they traditionally refer to different animals.
- Possums and opossums are marsupials but from different orders.
- The opossum is found in and around North America, while the possum originates in Australia.
- Although opossums are often considered a nuisance, they are harmless, even beneficial creatures.
- Playing possum is an idiom for playing dead.
If you’ve ever seen a quirky-looking critter bumbling around your yard late at night, you’ve probably encountered a possum…or opossum? But which is it?
Surprisingly, these two similar words (almost) aren’t just a variation of the name of a single animal. Instead, they represent two distinct creatures. Keep reading to learn more about possums, opossums, and why these two very different animals (almost) share a name.
Possum vs. Opossum: Two Animals, One Similar Name
There’s a reason these two distinct animals living half a world apart have nearly similar names. The Australian possum received its name because English Naturalist Sir Joseph Banks thought it bore a remarkable resemblance to the North American opossum.
With no disrespect to Sir Banks, the two are actually quite different. In fact, they’re entirely different animals.
Comparing the Facts: Possum vs. Opossum in Nature
Considering their separate classifications, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are numerous differences between these two species. Here are just a few facts comparing the possum vs. opossum:
- Possums may live in Australia, New Zealand, China, and several Indonesian islands. Opossums range from Northern Costa Rica to Southern Canada.
- The possum has a rounded body with thick fur that’s often golden or brown and a bushy, squirrel-like tail. By comparison, the opossum‘s features are stark. They have pointed white faces, dark ears, and coarse fur. Their tail is hairless and appears similar to that of a rat.
- Possums are tree-dwelling herbivores. On the other hand, opossums are opportunistic omnivores (otherwise known as scavengers). They eat fallen fruits, insects, and even rattlesnakes. They often make nests in tree holes or the abandoned nests of other animals.
- Both possums and opossums are nocturnal animals.
(O)Possum: Word Origins
Since possum is a variation of opossum, both words share a common origin, dating back to the early 17th century. Several previous versions of the word(s) include apossoun, apasum, and opassom. These spellings most likely came from English colonists at Jamestown in their attempts to record the Native American word for the opossum.
The first known use of the word opossum occurred in 1610. Use of possum followed shortly after that in 1613.
Is the O Silent in the Word Opossum?
No. Although the O in the word opossum doesn’t take on the long vowel sound found in words like open or vote, it is pronounced. The O in the opossum is pronounced uh, so the word sounds like uh·paa·sm.
Are Opossums Good to Have Around?
In the United States, opossums are often considered pests. They’re accused of knocking over garbage cans, killing chickens, and being aggressive or even rabid.
The truth is that opossums are quiet and typically gentle creatures. Although they’re rarely responsible for tipping over the trash, they may stop by to scavenge from garbage scattered by another nocturnal visitor.
While it is true that opossums hiss when approached, this is a defensive bluff rather than aggressive behavior. When truly threatened, an opossum is likely to do nothing more than play dead. Rabies rarely occurs in this species.
Opossums can actually be beneficial to have around. In addition to cleaning up spilled garbage, they may eat snails, slugs, small rodents, and insects such as ticks, which can carry deadly diseases. They may even eat rattlesnakes.
What It Means To Play Possum
In this situation, playing maybe a misnomer since the opossum enters an involuntary catatonic state when threatened. This defense mechanism probably evolved because predators tend to dislike dead prey.
The phrase eventually became an idiom used to describe people’s actions using similar methods to avoid or escape danger.
In Native American folklore, the opossum is occasionally seen as a braggart who plays dead out of embarrassment after making a fool of himself.
Opossum vs. Possum: When They Become One and The Same
The English language has a penchant for shortening words. Double-L spellings become single-L spellings. Extra vowels disappear. When we look more closely at possum vs. opossum, the same could actually happen.
Except in formal writing, it’s common in the United States for people to use possum and opossum interchangeably. In fact, these days, you’re far more likely to hear someone here refer to our native backyard marsupial as a possum than an opossum.
Occasionally, this may be expressed with an apostrophe as a stand-in for the initial O.
More often than not, however, it’s simply expressed as possum, no apostrophe. That’s led many to believe that eventually, opossum may become just another archaic word.
If indeed it does, the case of possum vs. opossum will no longer be a case of two animals, similar name. It will then be a case of past, present, and future word use.