Possum or opossum?

01 Apr

DictionariesBecause possums are known for playing dead, I thought this would be a good post for April Fool’s Day. But I’m posting this after midday in the UK, so it’s only still appropriate in later timezones than ours. Ah, well.

So, what’s the difference between opossums and possums? Well … there is and there isn’t a difference.

An opossum is an North American marsupial which is from the family Didelphidae and is handily also sometimes known as a possum. The word opossum was borrowed from the Powhatan language in the 1600s.

When Americans or those who knew the opossum first went to Australia, they found there was a similar-looking BUT NOT THE SAME animal from the Phalangeriformes family, and promptly christened it the possum. Except that it’s sometimes called an opossum.

Here’s the North American type, the opossum (or possum) (both pictures used from Wikipedia  on creatives commons licences):

North American opossum

and here’s the Australasian variant, the possum (or opossum):

Australasian possum

You’re welcome!

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


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10 responses to “Possum or opossum?

  1. Rebecca Foster

    April 2, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    I had no idea about the Australasian possum! Alas, you mostly see the American ones as roadkill. I’ve never seen a live one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz Dexter

      April 2, 2017 at 4:01 pm

      I wasn’t sure and had to check and re-check. I don’t think I’ve seen either!


  2. Julia

    April 3, 2017 at 9:41 am

    This is a great post. What about doing some more commonly confused animals – a mink and a minke? The mountain chicken and the plymouth rock chicken?


    • Liz Dexter

      April 3, 2017 at 9:55 am

      Glad you liked it and that’s a great idea, thank you!


  3. lizipaulk

    April 4, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    It’s funny that you wrote this since we saw a HUGE possum (US type) having a snack at our cat’s food last night. They look like a really big really fat white rat… Very shy. I think they’re rather sweet, but DH doesn’t have the same perspective! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz Dexter

      April 4, 2017 at 1:57 pm

      How funny, as I’ve said, I’ve never seen one, but I think I’d like to!


  4. Peter

    January 21, 2020 at 10:39 am

    In Australia the word possum is almost universally used to describe the creature that is protected in Oz, but is the basis for a winter hat for our New Zealand cousins. We never refer to them as opossums, and the few Australians who are familiar with the word opossum think of it in terms of the North American creature, or possibly the Irish animal, which is always apostrophised, as in O’Possum. I was interested to read how the Australian animal came to be named – from physical resemblance.

    We have been suffering drought here for a while, and many areas have imposed water restrictions, but I never realised how bad it was until I saw a sign in a garden reading “Boar Water In Use”

    Love the site and have bookmarked it.


    • Liz Dexter

      January 21, 2020 at 11:03 am

      Thank you for your comments – love the Irish version! And I’m glad you are enjoying my site, although I don’t update it as much as I used to at the moment!


  5. Peter

    January 21, 2020 at 11:01 am

    Here’s another troublesome triplet…
    dray – the cart that a horse or donkey pulls
    drey – the correct name for a possum’s or squirrel’s nest
    Dre – a kind of doctor I believe

    Liked by 1 person


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