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Proceedings of the First Symposium on Marsupials in New Zealand

[Use of Vernacular Name 'Possum' Or 'Opposum']

CUMMINS. In general discussion on his Keynote Address Dr Tyndale-Biscoe commented on the uses of the terms 'possum' or 'opossum' for Trichosurus vulpecula. Would anyone like to comment further?

SPURR. A quick look through the titles of the papers in the symposium programme shows that 12 papers use the common name 'possum' and 6 use 'opossum', and in the abstract section 2 papers change usage so that 10 use 'possum' and 8 use 'opossum'. While these figures mean very little, the fact remains that both names are of common usage in New Zealand. The editor of the Proceedings of this symposium will thus be faced with the decision (a) to publish a mixture of common names as used by authors; or (b) to standardise the common name. I think it is desirable if the name was standardised, not just in the Proceedings of this symposium but preferably in all future New Zealand publications.

Kean (1964) objected to the term 'possum' because he claimed (1) that it breaks with previous and current Australian usage and he quoted references dating from 1924 to 1942; (2) it conflicts with the standard dictionary definitions which give 'opossum' as American Indian in origin and 'possum' either as colloquial or a figure of speech. Troughton (1965) noted that objection (1) could not be conclusively substantiated since 'possum' had been in common usage in Australia since the time of European settlement. Caughley (1965) further stated that a glance through scientific papers published in the previous 10 years showed that most zoologists and all Australian zoologists have used 'possum'. Troughton also noted that the standard dictionary usage is frequently subject to addition or amendment. Caughley went on to state that the use of 'opossum' for Trichosurus confuses it with Didelphis; he suggested that we in New Zealand conform with Australian usage to standardise the common name, removing the anomaly of two distinct animals sharing the one name. I agree with Kean (1965) that personal opinions are scarcely relevant. Nevertheless I would support Caughley on two grounds: (1) standardisation of the vernacular or common name is desirable; (2) the name should be standardised to 'possum' to conform with Australian usage and such standardisation could be achieved if New Zealand journals could be persuaded to implement it.

KEBER. This business about standardisation of common names just means conformity. Why don't we use the binomial classification so there is no page 270 confusion.

SPURR. I agree on that point, but I was referring to Dr Tyndale-Biscoe's comments in his Keynote Address.

CUMMINS. Personally I use 'possum' but that is just because I am lazy!

PRACY. I remember living in the bush for a year, and somebody presented us with an old gramaphone. With this gramaphone was a record some American used to sing that referred to "a possum on a limb". If my better half wanted to annoy me she would play this record, and I told her "One of these days I'll break it over your b- head" and she really annoyed me, she played this record about 3 times, and the fourth time I went "boom" like that and from that day on I've never called the opossum a 'possum'.

CUMMINS. I am quite happy to see some diversity. I don't think it really matters much. The confusion arises of course for people outside New Zealand, who don't know what we're talking about. They talk about the brush-tailed phalanger and so on.

B.D. BELL. We accept that in popular usage and in general conversation many of us use both 'opossum' and 'possum'. I would support Dr Spurr in his appeal for conformity in scientific literature on the two sides of the Tasman. New Zealand has one species, the Australians have many more species and have already adopted 'possum'. Didelphis, the North American species, is generally referred to these days as 'opossum'.

GREEN. Could we have a show of hands to indicate how the audience as a whole feels about the use of the term 'possum' or 'opossum' in New Zealand literature?

CUMMINS. The results are 33 votes for 'possum', 13 votes for 'opossum' and 6 abstentions. The symposium vote is for 'possum' by a clear majority of 25.

ANONYMOUS. Yes there does appear to be a majority who prefer to use 'possum' and I think for articles which are to be read overseas it might be less confusing if we used the Australian nomenclature. I am quite happy for people to stick to what they want to call it - if they want to call it an honorary rabbit they can!