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Tuatara: Volume 13, Issue 3, November 1965

Note from an Australian Mammalogist on Usage of the Common Name ‘Possum’

Note from an Australian Mammalogist on Usage of the Common Name ‘Possum’

While the References in Tuatara (Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 155-156) to colleague Iredale and myself regarding the Australian Check-List, and the book Furred Animals of Australia, were greatly appreciated, it came as a matter of interest and considerable surprise to find the relative merits of the terms ‘Opossum’ or ‘Possum’ treated as a matter of almost taxonomic importance.

However, it cannot be conclusively stated that the use of the ‘Possum’ abbreviation ‘breaks with previous Australian and current general usage,’ while standard dictionary usage, as with many idiomatic expressions, is frequently subject to addition or amendment. The fact remains regarding Australian popular usage that, just as the term ‘Possum’ is associated with the southern Negroes in America, the same term has been in common usage by country folk since the settlement of Australia.

The statement in my book about omitting the initial ‘O’, and reference to Captain Cook's usage, was not of course intended to imply any real zoological significance, as between the phalanger and American didelphyiids. The omission was made merely to simplify the popular names, for example ‘Honey-Possum’ and ‘Glider-Possum’, for usage in a book having the main objective of creating popular interest in the marsupial fauna and its conservation.

page 193

While appreciating the reference to Furred Animals of Australia, as of 1941, it is notable the the seventh revised edition appeared in 1962, while an extensively revised edition is in preparation for 1965.

Ellis Troughton,

Scientific Associate, The Australian Museum, Sydney