Dictionary.com

What’s the Difference Between “Possum” and “Opossum”?

opossum

The most famous marsupial of the moment is Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum from Germany. Heidi has made headlines across the globe and has over 200,000 fans on Facebook. Enough with the cuteness, and on to a great story of language: What is the difference between possum and opossum? The answer is more complex and interesting than you might think.

The opossum received its name in the early 1600s from Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony in Virginia. The name is derived from aposoum, a Virginia Algonquian word meaning “white beast.” The first recorded reference to the opossum in literature came in 1610 in the following passage from A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia: “There are … Apossouns, in shape like to pigges.” In the late 1700s, Sir Joseph Banks, a naturalist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first great voyage, likened a furry creature he saw in Australia to “an animal of the Opossum tribe.” The term for the ringtail marsupial that he spotted was shortened to possum. This truncation of the original term may explain why many people are surprised to learn that opossum and possum are in fact two very different marsupial species of the arboreal kind.

Possessing a furry tail, the true possum belongs to the Phalangeridae family within the Marsupialia order and is primarily found in New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia and other islands in the Pacific region. There are many varieties of possums, including Gliders and Cuscus, while the opossum is a more limited species. With their signature bare tail, the opossum is North America’s only known marsupial; this means the animal carries its young in a pouch much like the Australian kangaroo. Both the possum and the opossum are nocturnal, nomadic omnivores and live on an expansive diet that includes insects, frogs, birds, snakes and fruits. The opossum is primarily dark gray in color but some resemble cinnamon, and, as in Heidi’s case, white opossums are known to exist. The possum is primarily gray in color. The possum and the opossum are both hunted animals and possess an instinct to play dead, or “play possum” when threatened.

Whether the sharp-toothed furry critter who rustles around outside your garbage cans at night is a possum or an opossum may simply come down to where you are in the world.

Now that you know the difference between these marsupials, consider the differences between an octopus and a squid, and learn what exactly a zedonk is, here.

See Also:
12 Surprising Names for Baby Animals
9 Dog Idioms with Real Bite

60 Comments

  1. Justk -  August 16, 2013 - 4:05 pm

    This thread made my Friday! I can’t stop laughing….. My Coworkers and I were discussing the possum vs. opossum and came across this article. The comments are the best part – GREAT stuff!!! : )

    Reply
  2. ttigresa -  February 23, 2013 - 12:09 pm

    @ rl: as I was reading the comments you posted “@marie the north american marsupial is actually a possum. The ones in the pacific and australian areas are opossums”. I don’t understand if you were trying to contradict what the article said or if you were mistaken… Had you not read the same article I just read which stated the following: “With their signature bare tail, the opossum is North America’s only known marsupial.” That means they (Opossums) are in North America, right? Not just ‘the pacific and Australian areas’ as you said.

    Reply
  3. Opossum | English Language Reference -  July 5, 2012 - 1:04 am

    [...] [Language Usage: While writing the word ‘opossum’, some people leave out the letter ‘o’; however, an apostrophe (’) must be used in place of the letter ‘o’, e.g. ’possum, which shows that the word is actually ‘opossum’, because there is another animal which is called 'possum'. "opposum" found in America, and "possum" found in Australia and New Zealand. To know the difference between these two animals, please click here.] [...]

    Reply
  4. Jerome « The Half Empty Glass -  January 21, 2012 - 10:24 am

    [...] I’m no fan of possums (or opposums — I don’t know the difference, if there is one), but how could you not feel bad for this poor [...]

    Reply
  5. Jon Donley -  September 29, 2011 - 8:41 am

    @Saf

    “I say “‘possum,” but I write “opossum.” Mainly to differentiate between the marsupial and the Latin word for “can” (as in te audire non possum). The difference would be clear when speaking, but written usage could lead to ambiguity.”

    There’s nothing worse than confusing the Vatican about furry beasts . . .

    Reply
  6. Anonymous -  January 28, 2011 - 3:50 pm

    LOL Seriously, @Misanthrope, you’re starting an argument about whether or not words should be inside or outside of quotations marks?? Honestly, give @Aporia a break! This is a post about POSSUMS, for heaven’s sake!

    Reply
  7. Bryan H. Allen -  January 25, 2011 - 12:58 pm

    OK. Here goes, one more time. OOPS! Having to post my comments by 4:30 PM PT prevents me from reviewing them enough, let alone condensing them.

    The meaning of the word “virgule” is found at http://Dictionary.reference.com/browse/virgule, not the erroneous URI I posted yesterday.

    After I tie a few loose ends in some previous comments of mine (correcting the record for its own sake), I need to take a sabbatical from my (verbose) commentary at The Hot Word.

    Bye again, all you imaginary readers!

    Reply
  8. Bryan H. Allen -  January 24, 2011 - 4:35 pm

    So far as I observed, no one yet noted that the semantic and biological distinction, “possum” versus “opossum”, arose from irregular spoken use, not etymology. It vaguely resembles the distinction between “deduce” and “deduct”, both derived from the same Latin verb /dedūcere/ ≡ /dedûcere/. (A single-byte character—displayed in most fonts—represents the circumflex û, but a two-byte character—less-well supported—represents the macron ū. I.e., writing circumflex characters poses less risk that a  box will be displayed instead of a readable character. That is why I prefer to write them.) Likewise, in Anglo-Saxon, [v] was a non-distinct variant of /f/ between vowels, e.g., in seofon, seven. The later loss of terminal vowels made it phonemic (distinguishing meaning) in modern English.

    In the past, many commenters at The Hot Word have argued whether one symbol was equivalent to another. They might have failed to reckon that the presence and absence of distinction might have evolved over time. The arguers might all be wrong in that the symbols might have been identical or distinct in different epochs, not monolithic!

    Lynn at 1:04 pm wrote the very nicest things, thank you! Jessica at 3:36 pm too! (Foolish I greet “Hi ’possum!”, like “Hi kitty!”, when I encounter one. I pronounce “opossum” in proper English.) Thank you, namesake Brian. I shan’t mention the needlessly painful methods others used to rid themselves of a mere indoor annoyance. Next time, set a benign cage trap, and just move them to the great outdoors! Unless desperate, please find better meat.

    The greatest fault of the U.S. rule (put the punctuation invariably within any quotation) is that it negates a logical distinction: between author’s origin and quoter’s origin, between an utterly correct quote and an inaccurate one. No one (common gender) should imprison himself (common gender) behind faulty rules, lacking integrity, I opine. (However, where the fault is legal, one should dissent through a lawsuit or legislation.)

    Misanthrope, 10:47 am edition, it jist ain’t raaght! Did you intend a special effect in style when you wrote “like you said”? (↢As you see there, I dissent from and repudiate the illogical U.S. rule to include adscititious punctuation within a quotation, but I abstain from the error of calling my practice ““correct””, as a commenter did. I import Briticisms wherever logically advantageous, e.g., a 12-storey building, distinct from a building of which a dozen stories are told.)

    Y’no, Misanthrope, in literary English, the preposition must have a /nominal/ object, not a clause! “Like you, I said it” is literary English, as is “Like *what* you said, …”, albeit, it is awkward.

    Recommendation: If anyone suffers a terrible bias for “like” instead of “as”, then please just insert a relative pronoun, like “what” or “whatever”, or “everything” or “anything”. “Like your statement, …”, “Like everything you said, …” are other literarily acceptable formulations which avoid “as”.

    Classicist at 8:06 am wrote that “…it seems to me somewhat unlikely that any half-sentient being would mistake a common English noun for a Latin verb…even more so when talking about marsupials…” At minimum, that statement must be refined to “any /fully attentive/ half-sentient being…” Imagine just scanning a text ocularly. An instance of the Latin possum (Saf of Karbalâ’ knows *much, much* more Latin than I do!) might “catch one’s eye” or “leap off the page”, reminding the scanner of the marsupial.

    Reasonable redundancy is salutary and prophylactic. For one benefit, prudent, sound construction with a dose of redundancy might spare the reader a fraction of a second in recognizing the meaning (significant if you don’t have all day to ruminate on meanings), let alone the necessity of re-reading the passage.

    Fault tolerance (http://Dictionary.com/browse/Fault+tolerance) is usually good, in humans and non-human biologic and cybernetic systems alike. Nevertheless, faultiness is rarely a virtue. It may be virtuous only competitively, where one virtue competitively outweighs another, as in the cited, abbreviated URI. (Did you notice the fault, the omission?)

    As for the incapacity of simple HTML textboxes to accept italic type, please learn about “markdown” at the site http://DaringFireball.net/projects/markdown/syntax#philosophy. It is useful in textboxes, and I suggest that Dictionary.com’s programmers include the incorporation of markdown in textbox processing in its wish list. (Administrator, do you “copy” that?) My independent, quasi-pictorial convention is to simulate italic type with bracketed forward strokes (another gentle Briticism for virgule: http://Dictionary.reference.com/browse/virgule) or slants (less hostile and injurious than slashes, you understand—ouch, the sentient paper would say).

    By the by, how /did/ Saf evade the textbox limitation to insert italic type (2:24 pm)? Is markdown already programmatically recognized? And, m’lady, is it صاف or ساف or none of that? Google translation shows the former as a word, not the latter.

    Yes, BHA in L.A., CA, US is verbose. Bye for now, all imaginary readers!

    Reply
  9. THE BLAH GUY -  January 21, 2011 - 12:06 pm

    ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….dead(playing possum)

    Reply
  10. Misanthrope -  January 15, 2011 - 10:52 am

    I also would like to declare that I agree with Bob Beazley on the whole topic of punctuation positioning in regards to quotation marks.

    Regards,
    Misanthrope

    Reply
  11. Misanthrope -  January 15, 2011 - 10:47 am

    @Too Many Notes: I know the all about when words should be italicized, but like you said, this text box doesn’t support italics. That’s why I didn’t even bother mentioning italics to Aporia. I used to always put punctuation inside of the quotation marks as well, but I would get a reprimand from my teachers whenever I did, which is why I believe that punctuation goes outside of the quotes in the instance of emphasis or a pronunciation explanation, and inside of the quotes in the instance of quoting someone’s [excerpt of] dialogue. That was just the way I was taught. Now then, under American syntax, would you mind giving me an example sentence of when punctuation goes outside of quotation marks (in the case of single characters or digits)?

    @Aporia: They may never go outside the quotation marks under American syntax, except in the case of single characters and digits, which, in turn, cancels out the whole “never” part. Well, if indirect quotations don’t even have quotation marks to begin with, then why did you put quotation marks around ‘possum’ and ‘opposum’ in your previous post? I think both of those qualify as indirect quotations. Wouldn’t you have left those two words in their individual purity if you abided by your system of syntactical belief, albeit this text box doesn’t support italics?

    @Saf: I see. I’ve heard different things from different people. For the most part, I try to abide by what seems correct and the method under which I was taught when it comes to quandaries like these. I guess this proves that America and its denizens generally take bias for the more appealing things, even if they’re fallacious. No surprise there. I’m not going to rant on any further about my American misanthropy though; that would take way more time than I am willing to invest. Anyway, thank you for the enlightenment you provided, I will be sure to take it into consideration in the future.

    Regards,
    Misanthrope

    Reply
  12. Misanthrope -  January 15, 2011 - 10:13 am

    @Too Many Notes: I know the all about when words should be italicized, but like you said, this text box doesn’t support italics. That’s why I didn’t even bother mentioning italics to Aporia. I used to always put punctuation inside of the quotation marks as well, but I would get a reprimand from my teachers whenever I did, which is why I believe that punctuation goes outside of the quotes in the instance of emphasis or a pronunciation explanation, and inside of the quotes in the instance of quoting someone’s [excerpt of] dialogue. That was just the way I was taught. Now then, under American syntax, would you mind giving me an example sentence of when punctuation goes outside of quotation marks (in the case of single characters or digits)?

    @Aporia: They may never go outside the quotation marks under American syntax, except in the case of single characters and digits, which, in turn, cancels out the whole “never” part. If indirect quotations

    Reply
  13. Lynn -  January 14, 2011 - 1:04 pm

    Opossums are not rodents. They are gentle animals who wander through yards at night looking for something to eat.
    They kill and eat rats, mice, snakes, snails, slugs, and all kinds of bugs you don’t want in your yard. They have a very short life span so give them a break and don’t kill them. If they look mean, it is because they have no defense but to show you their teeth, growl and hope you go away. When chased by a predator, they will lie still, seem dead (foul smell from back end)and predator will give up and go on its way. Leave them alone and they will leave on their own. If you leave cat food outside, they will come for it. Skunks and raccoons will too. And if you have a cat door, they will come in and perhaps find a nice place in your home to sleep. And that ratty looking tail will wrap around and pick up bedding which they carry to where they are spending the day sleeping. No rat can do that!
    They are beneficial to us. Let them be.

    Reply
  14. Ol Chris -  January 14, 2011 - 11:06 am

    Either way, as a kid, I ate them cooked with sweet taters. Tasted prety good.

    Reply
  15. Bob Beazley -  January 14, 2011 - 9:46 am

    What is the difference between “possum” and “opossum?” Wrong.

    What is the difference between “possum” and “opossum”? Correct.

    Yours in pedantry…Bob

    Reply
  16. dre7861 -  January 14, 2011 - 9:31 am

    Growing up near where Captain Smith first saw an oppossum, on the my first seeing one of the creatures named it a Chernobyl Rat! The funny thing was when I described it to a nearby Park Ranger as being white, furry, looking like a rodent with a long hairless tail, the Ranger replied that he didn’t know what it was I saw – must have been his first day on the job.

    Reply
  17. Garrett_is_Smith -  January 14, 2011 - 8:37 am

    What is all this fighting about grammar? Fight about religion. It’s much more interesting.

    Reply
  18. Classicist -  January 14, 2011 - 8:06 am

    @Saf – please do elaborate on your point, as it seems to me somewhat unlikely that any half-sentient being would mistake a common English noun for a Latin verb…even more so when talking about marsupials……

    Gratias ago.

    Reply
  19. Quixola -  January 14, 2011 - 8:02 am

    None of this explains the purely dialectal distinction between social classes in America.

    Reply
  20. Saf -  January 14, 2011 - 7:21 am

    @Misanthrope

    Yes, I know you weren’t addressing me, but your comment does apply to my previous one. In regards to commas inside quotes, it really depends on which English-speaking country you’re from/in.

    In American English, it is always considered proper to enclose the comma or period within the quotation marks, with the only exception being when the quoted material consists of a single character or digit.

    Illogical? Yes. But proper. Our system of comma-inclusive quotation marks came about as a result of early American newsprinters who valued visual aesthetics above grammatical integrity. I’m personally more fond of the Queen’s method, but I use the American system because I am American, and — as I said, it’s proper.

    ~Saf

    Reply
  21. David -  January 14, 2011 - 6:48 am

    Possums (or I should say “opossums”, being in North America) are nasty. Had a few invade my garage a few years ago, which I decided to shoot with low speed .22 bullets so as not to shoot holes in my garage walls, since they had hunkered down in nooks and crannies and odd corners and wouldn’t be chased out. Know what the problem with the plan is? Their brain is about the size of a walnut, so it’s hard to tell if you hit it, and guess what… if you miss and wound it…It PLAYS dead! So reaching in and grabbing it out of it’s hiding place is not a great idea… You just have to sit and wait to see if it starts moving again – if so, plug it again. NASTY!

    Reply
  22. Aporia -  January 14, 2011 - 5:33 am

    @Misanthrope: No. Commas never, ever go outside the quotation marks. Silly bunches. What you’re thinking of is an indirect quotation, which doesn’t even have quotation marks in the first place.

    Reply
  23. Clark -  January 14, 2011 - 3:38 am

    I just came to the comments section to see if this was all Sarah Palin’s fault. I mean, so many other things apparently are.

    Reply
  24. Brian -  January 13, 2011 - 11:26 pm

    This article was confusing. Wikipedia is nice and simple:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opossum

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Possum

    Just to clarify, the animal in the picture is not Heidi the cross-eyed Virginia Opossum. It is just a random Possum to go with the article. And although Heidi is from Germany, she is still a true Virginia Opossum. It is those misconceptions that confused me. The article didn’t get anything wrong, it just presented itself in a puzzling manner.

    Opossum = ugly ratlike creature common in America and discovered in Virginia.

    Possum = furry tailed marsupial common in “New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia and other islands in the Pacific region” just as the article says.

    Reply
  25. Exploding Cranium -  January 13, 2011 - 10:52 pm

    Either way, they’re still rodents and still absolutely nasty.

    Reply
  26. Too Many Notes -  January 13, 2011 - 10:50 pm

    @Misanthope

    Actually, words used as words themselves should be emphasized by using italics, though I doubt this text box supports coding. However, Aporia is using quotations correctly by American rules, which differ from British/International rules. By American grammar rules, commas and periods always go inside quotation marks (no matter how the quotes are being used), with one minor exception being that periods and commas go outside quoted digits and single letters.

    Reply
  27. Vishnu -  January 13, 2011 - 10:43 pm

    mind bending article…will reread again..

    Reply
  28. Misanthrope -  January 13, 2011 - 9:34 pm

    @Aporia: I’m pretty sure that you have comma placement wrong. You’re only supposed to put commas inside of the quotes if it is a direct quotation, otherwise, if it’s quotes used for emphasis, then you should place them outside of the quotes. Just a helpful heads-up.

    Regards,
    Misanthrope

    Reply
  29. Dan Kent -  January 13, 2011 - 9:29 pm

    Why did the chicken cross the street? To prove to the opposum that it could be done.

    Reply
  30. mark -  January 13, 2011 - 9:12 pm

    thar a pest in new zealand and should be shot

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  31. chari -  January 13, 2011 - 9:11 pm

    uuummmmmm ?????????????????????????? wow idk wat 2 say:(

    Reply
  32. Pi -  January 13, 2011 - 8:19 pm

    @Waldo Pepper

    Since this is a forum about the English language, I believe helping people correct their spelling mistakes (or at least help them learn how to use a spell-checker) is probably a good idea. Taking into consideration that the vast majority of the posts have at least one error, we should be thankful for anyone who can help us correct our mistakes. Unless of course we are not interested in learning about the English language, in which case we should probably move to another forum…

    Reply
  33. ms.karma -  January 13, 2011 - 7:59 pm

    play possum! haha. cool one.

    Reply
  34. Ttark -  January 13, 2011 - 7:43 pm

    According to Kratts Creatures (my favorite nature show)
    Oppossum is the white faced one in america and Possum is the brown tree dweller in Australia.

    Reply
  35. Linda -  January 13, 2011 - 6:40 pm

    rl, you have it backwards. The article is poorly written. I had to read it twice to make sure. If it is in North America with a bare tail, it is an opossum. The possum of Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia has a furry tail and has many different varieties like the sugar glider and cuscus.

    Reply
  36. Aporia -  January 13, 2011 - 6:04 pm

    I pronounce the word “possum,” but I write “opossum,” simply because that’s how I was first told it worked.

    Reply
  37. Kylah -  January 13, 2011 - 5:33 pm

    the actual word is opposum

    Reply
  38. lexi -  January 13, 2011 - 5:26 pm

    these articles make one think, as they never give a straightforward answer….

    Reply
  39. Waldo Pepper -  January 13, 2011 - 5:18 pm

    How come every thread has to have that one douche bag pointing out the spelling errors? Go away!!

    Reply
  40. Dave -  January 13, 2011 - 4:56 pm

    muy interesante :)

    Reply
  41. Kerry -  January 13, 2011 - 4:45 pm

    Thanks for the explanation. However possums in Australia are not mostly greyThey are a multitude of colours from a pale yellow (rare) through beautiful golden browns to dark brown and grey.They are superb creatures.

    Reply
  42. Shannyn -  January 13, 2011 - 4:33 pm

    Possums in New Zealand are considered pests. They were introduced from Australia in the 1830s and thrived, due to the lack of natural predators. They eat our native plants and threaten our native fauna.

    We have a reasonable fur industry, selling scarves and gloves, etc, made from possum fur. It’s so soft!

    Reply
  43. ilikecereal -  January 13, 2011 - 4:17 pm

    potato

    Reply
  44. Courtney:) -  January 13, 2011 - 4:14 pm

    So which one is it anyways?? I’m confused AND stumped… mostly because I didn’t read the article since I’m too lazy. Haha :)

    Reply
  45. Marx Lenn Mendoza -  January 13, 2011 - 3:55 pm

    oh ok, i’ve seen one in the tv about it and i really find it cute….so its really possum not opposum (color wise)? if i got it correctly…hehehehe…sorry…

    Reply
  46. Robin -  January 13, 2011 - 3:42 pm

    RL — you have it backwards.

    Opossum:
    “The opossum received its name in the early 1600’s from Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony in Virginia.” (Virginia = North America)

    Possum:
    “Possessing a furry tail, the true possum belongs to the Phalangeridae family within the Marsupialia order and is primarily found in New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia and other islands in the Pacific region”

    Reply
  47. Jessica Dupuis -  January 13, 2011 - 3:36 pm

    AWWWWWW its SOOOOOO cute

    Reply
  48. back in the NW -  January 13, 2011 - 3:20 pm

    When I was living in the suberb of Seattle years back, outside the window in the backyard that animal was standing and watching me inside the house. I am not from Seattle and never seen that animal before and I got stunned to have seen that huge ratlike animal staring back to me.
    It was funny but at the same time the thing I saw for the first time in my life was a feeling that really defies the description in horror. Now I get to think that they might be a cute thing.

    Reply
  49. markv -  January 13, 2011 - 3:05 pm

    Marsupials are ‘mammals that have stomachepouches’ usualy for carrying the children’s in.

    IE:Kangaroo babies look more like little stumpy-armed jellybeans than anything, after theyre born they mount an expedition(significant distance when youre a jellybean) up the mothers belly to hide in the pouch, they dont leave the pouch until big enought to be able to keep up on their own accord.

    Reply
  50. rl -  January 13, 2011 - 2:57 pm

    @marie the north american marsupial is actually a possum. The ones in the pacific and australian areas are opossums.
    @will marsupials are mammals that carry their young in a pouch on their bellys, like kangaroo.

    Reply
  51. Saf -  January 13, 2011 - 2:24 pm

    I say “‘possum,” but I write “opossum.” Mainly to differentiate between the marsupial and the Latin word for “can” (as in te audire non possum).

    The difference would be clear when speaking, but written usage could lead to ambiguity.

    ~Saf

    Reply
  52. Will -  January 13, 2011 - 2:11 pm

    What’s a “maruspial?”

    Reply
  53. dogfriend -  January 13, 2011 - 2:05 pm

    Maybe the North American opossum is not a possum but that’s what most people call it.

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  54. Kristin -  January 13, 2011 - 2:03 pm

    Interessant! Sehr interessant;) (interesting! Very interesting)
    Thanks for the article!

    Reply
  55. marie -  January 13, 2011 - 1:59 pm

    ummm ….. this is very interesting….. yet it still makes sense.

    Reply
  56. smoothius -  January 13, 2011 - 1:57 pm

    what is that animal there?
    what animal where?
    that one there.
    oh, possum.

    Reply
  57. kooky -  January 13, 2011 - 1:50 pm

    i use the word possum.

    Reply

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