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The most famous marsupial of the moment is Heidi, the goofy, cross-eyed opossum from Germany. Heidi has made headlines across the globe and apparently has over 111,000 fans on Facebook. Enough with the cuteness, and on to a great story of language: What is the difference between “possum” and “opossum?” Is one correct? The answer is more complex, and interesting than you might think.

The opossum received its name in the early 1600’s from Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony in Virginia. The name is derived from aposoum, a Virginia Algonquian word meaning ‘white beast.’ The shortened version of this word soon became possum when in the late 1700’s Captain Cook’s botanist Sir Joseph Banks upon seeing an Australian common ringtail possum likened the furry creature to “an animal of the Opossum tribe.” The first recorded reference to the opossum in literature came in 1610 with the publication of A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia  that contains the passage, “There are… Apossouns, in shape like to pigges.”  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. 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. There are many varieties of possums, including Gliders and Cuscus, while the opossum is a more limited species. 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 grey in color but some resemble cinnamon, and, as in Heidi’s case, white opossums are known to exist. The possum is primarily grey 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.

10 MOVIES TO WATCH FOR

Chicago Sun-Times October 2, 1996 | Lloyd Sachs Here are 10 of the notable features showing at the Chicago International Film Festival: website movies to watch

“Breaking the Waves” (Denmark): An offbeat love story from one of the modern cinema’s darkly offbeat virtuosos, Lars Van Trier (“Zentropa”).

“Goodbye South, Goodbye” (Taiwan): A youth culture study by the gifted, wonderfully observant Hou Hsiao-Hsien. “The Funeral” (U.S.): A period drama from “Bad Lieutenant” director Abel Ferrara, with Christopher Walken, Chris Penn and Isabella Rossellini. “Lilies” (Canada): A homosexual triangle is relived by a bishop and convict in John Greyson’s prison drama, set in 1952. “Looking for Richard” (U.S.): Al Pacino directs and plays Richard III in a multileveled meditation on theater, with Winona Ryder and Alec Baldwin. “The Proprietor” (Great Britain): The great Jeanne Moreau plays a great novelist in New York and Paris in a film by Ismael Merchant. “Ridicule” (France): A look at the French aristocracy, pre-Revolution, by Patrice Leconte (“The Hairdresser’s Husband”) and starring Fanny Ardant. “Shine” (Australia): Scott Hicks’ fact-based film about a classical pianist struggling with mental illness. “Sling Blade” (U.S.): Billy Bob Thornton, co-writer and co-star of “One False Move,” directs himself as a mildly retarded man returning home from prison 25 years after murdering his abusive mother and her lover. “Vaska Easoff” (Hungary): A folkloric tale of gulag-era Russia by Peter Gothar, director of the acclaimed “Time Stands Still.” For tickets and information, call (312) 644-3456. in our site movies to watch

Lloyd Sachs

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
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