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Tuatara: Volume 12, Issue 3, November 1964

“Opossum” or “Possum”?

“Opossum” or “Possum”?

The Term ‘Possum’, in reference to the Phalangeridae, seems to have been launched scientifically in the Australian check list of Iredale and Troughton (1934), and it was brought into prominence by Troughton's ‘Furred Animals of Australia’ in which the author stated: ‘It is desirable, however, to shorten the word to “possum” to emphasise the difference from the American family, and it is interesting to note that Cook actually anticipated the characteristic Australian love of brevity by omitting the initial 0 in his Journal’.

The objections to the use of the term are that it breaks with previous Australian and general current usage, and that it conflicts with the standard dictionaries which give ‘possum’ either as colloquial American, or as standard English idiom in ‘playing possum’ — in both cases referring specifically to the American Didelphis.

‘Possum’ is well established in association with southern negroes, as in the expressions ‘Brer Possum’ (of Uncle Remus), ‘the possum and the coon’, ‘possum hounds’, ‘possum and taters’, etc. The term remains colloquial in the United States, but it is frequently used, particularly for titles, in popular articles, and it is the title of Carl Hartman's book (1952) in which he collates his scattered research papers on Didelphis.

Several Australians have discussed the popular designation of Trichosurus, but none except Troughton has recommended ‘possum’. Wood Jones (1924) said that the animal would be ‘universally and certainly permanently throughout Australia known as the opossum’. Bolliger (1948) discussed change of name, but did not consider ‘possum’ at all. A. S. Kenyon, of the Public Library of Melbourne, in 1942 protested against the intrusion of ‘possum’ and the break with established usage. page 156 While Troughton was correct in saying that Captain Cook used the term, Kenyon and Hartman both pointed out that he did not, as Troughton implied, use ‘possum’ exclusively; he only sometimes omitted the ‘O’.

The frequent Australian omission does not seem to have been followed in text books, but Grassé, Treatise de Zoologie, 1957, in which ‘opossum’ is used, notes the existence of an Australian alternative, ‘possum’, and some recent dictionaries also allow the term as an Australian one. Marshall, in Parker and Haswell 7th edition, often inserts ‘possum or’ before phalanger of the previous edition, but uses ‘possum’ alone if it is qualified, as in ‘honey-possum’. He also explains incidentally that ‘phalanger’ was probably first applied (by Buffon) to American marsupials and not to Australian ones.

In New Zealand ‘opossum’ is used in legislation, and in scientific papers. Exceptions have been made by Tyndale-Biscoe (who was publishing in Australia) and by T. A. Riney, who used ‘phalanger’ as well as ‘possum’.

In Australia, ‘possum’ has recently been adopted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and by popular writers; Barbour, 1963, uses ‘phalanger’. However, the Forestry Commission of Victoria (Plantation Technical Papers, 1957, No. 3) used ‘opposum’, ‘opossum’, or ‘oppossum’, but never ‘possum’.


Wood Jones, F., 1923. The Mammals of South Australia, p. 27. Adelaide, Govt. Printer.

——, 1924. On the habits of Trichosurus vulpecula. J. Mammal. 2: 187-193.

Iredale, T., and Troughton, E. Le G., 1934. A check list of the mammals recorded from Australia. Aust. Museum, Sydney, Memoir VI.

Troughton, E. Le G., 1941. The Furred Animals of Australia. Sydney, Angus and Robertson.

Kenyon, A. S., 1942. Note. Aust. J. Sci. 4(3): 92.

Bolliger, A., 1948. Alternative names for Trichosurus vulpecula. Aust. J. Sci. 11(1): 30-31.

Hartman, C. G., 1952. Possums. Univ. Texas Press, Austin, U.S.A.

Marshall, A. J., 1962. Parker and Haswell: A text-book of zoology. Vol. II. 7th ed. London and New York, Macmillan.

Barbour, R. A., 1963. The musculature and limb plexes of Trichosurus vulpecula. Aust. J. Zool. 11(4): 488-610.