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Opossum vs. Possum (Definitions, Differences, Examples)

What is the difference between opossum vs. possum? When it comes to opossums and possums, there’s a lot of confusion. Some people maintain that both of words refer to the same type of animal. On the other hand, some argue that these words refer to two different animals, both marsupials however.

In reality, there is some truth to both of these claims. In North America, a lot of people use the terms ‘opossums’ and ‘possums’ interchangeably. Even on other continents, the usage of these two words depends upon the context.

An Australian, for instance, might use the term ‘possum’ when talking about their native species.

This is evident in Terri Irwin’s (Steve Irwin’s wife) writing – “I’ve always liked Possums. Like a lot of wildlife, they are completely misunderstood.

Virginia opossums are the only North American marsupials.”

An American, on the other hand, might have used the word ‘possum’ for their own Virginia opossum.

Opossum vs possum example
Opossum vs possum example

What are Opossums and Possums? (Opossum vs. Possum)

The consensus is that the marsupials found in places other than America such as China, Australia, etc. are called Possums. On the other hand, the only marsupial found in North America of the order Didelphimorphia is called an “Opossum”.

The linguistic tendency of American people, however, has been to shorten the word and omit the ‘o’ from the word in speech and writing.

Thus, there are ample historical examples of the two words ‘possum’ and ‘opossum’ being used interchangeably, even though they refer to the same white and gray marsupial.

The origins of the name ‘opossum’ date back to colonial times, when English colonists borrowed the word for this animal from the Powhatan language spoken by the Native Americans of that region. As expected, they mispronounced and misspelled the word, ultimately giving rise to “opossum”.

Possum /ˈpɑː.səm/Opossums are members of the marsupial order Didelphimorphia endemic to the Americas. The largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, it comprises 120+ species in 19 genera. (Wikipedia)
Opposum (US informal)an opossum.

Captain John Smith, a pivotal figure in the establishment of Jamestown, referred to these animals in writing as “opassum”. William Strachey, however, spelled it as “aposoum”. Possum was also derived from the word opossum.

When a British botanist travelled to countries such as China, Australia, etc., he named the marsupials that looked similar to the American opossum “possums”.

In reality, however, the marsupials called possums in such lands are more closely linked to other marsupials found there (like Kangaroos). Scientifically speaking, Possums of Australia belong to another order – Phalangeriformes.

Opossum vs possum example
Opossum vs possum example

Key Differences

To sum it up, here are the key differences between possums and opossums:

  • Opossums are those marsupials found in America. Possums are those marsupials resembling American opossums that are found in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and China.
  • The main identifying feature of possums from Australia is that they have a bushy tail, unlike their counterparts in North America that have a bare tail.
  • Australian possums belong to the suborder Phalangeriformes. American opossums belong to the order Didelphimorphia.
  • American opossums are way lighter in weight than Australian possums, roughly at 2 lbs (Australian possums can weight up to 10 lbs).
  • American opossums are omnivores. Australian possums are herbivores.
  • You can easily find Australian possums in human environments, and they quite comfortably adapt to human environments. An American possum, on the other hand, is sort of an introvert. It’ll play dead if you go near it (that’s where the idiom comes from).

When to Use Opossum?

The correct time to use opossum is when referring to the North American marsupial. If you’re talking to someone from another country such as Australia or New Zealand, it’s better to use the word “opossum” when referring to the North American marsupials. This will help you avoid confusion.

However, if you’re talking to another American, you can use the words “opossum” and “possum” interchangeably, as the chances of them being confused will be quite low.

In fact, many Americans use the word “possum” more because of the popularity of the idiom “Playing possum”.

Sentence Examples

  • “Animals, even plants, lie to each other all the time, and we could restrict the research to them, putting off the real truth about ourselves for the several centuries we need to catch our breath. What is it that enables certain flowers to resemble nubile insects, or opossums to play dead, or female fireflies to change the code of their flashes in order to attract, and then eat, males of a different species?” – Lewis Thomas
  • “In fact, the Van Diemaner and South American are to the antiquary what the opossum and the sloth are to the geologist.” – John Lubbock

When to Use Possum?

You should possum when referring to the opossum-like marsupials from Australia, New Zealand, and China.

In casual conversations, however, most people from all parts of the world prefer to use “possum” when referring to any opossum-like or possum-like creature.

Unless you’re talking to someone from another country, the need of distinguishing between “possum” and “opossum” won’t be urgent.

Sentence Examples

  • “You can’t put this possum in a cage” – George Jones.
  • “When possums were introduced in 1837 to start a fur industry, no one predicted that these Australian neighbors would naturalize with destructive enthusiasm, wreaking havoc on gardens and bush alike.” – Bee Dawson (talking about Australian Possums)
  • “Hey Susie Derkins, is that your face, or is a ‘possum stuck in your collar?” – Bill Watterson (an American author replacing the ‘o’ with an apostrophe when referring to the American Opossum)

What does the Idiom “Playing Possum” mean?

Technically, all of the confusion arises from the idiom “Playing possum”. The actual possums (from Australia, New Zealand, and China) do not play dead. On the other hand, North American opossums do play dead whenever threatened.

So, technically, the idiom should be “Playing opossum”. Nevertheless, the meaning of this idiom is quite simple. It means that you’re playing dead or pretending that you’re asleep, so you won’t have to deal with something (usually other human beings).

Here are some instances of this idiom being used in a sentence:

  • Little Marcus was playing possum when it was time to go to School.
  • The soldier had to play possum in order to avoid being captured by the enemy forces.
  • Don’t make any moves until you have all the shareholders on your side. It’s best to lay low and play possum for the time being.

Difference Between Australian Possum and American Possum

As mentioned before, there are distinct differences in the physical appearances of the Australian Possum and the American Opossum. Australian possums are heavier, have more hair (specifically on their tail), and even bigger.

Moreover, Australian possums can live in human habitats and they don’t play dead. American Opossums, unlike Australian possums, are omnivorous scavengers and they usually avoid human beings. It was the American Opossum which inspired the idiom – “Playing Possum”.


All in all, the usage of the two words “opossum” and “possum” depends upon you and the context. For conversations between two internationals, it’s better to use the proper terms for the different animals. However, as an American, you don’t have to be that specific in local conversations. You can easily get away by using the words “possum” and “opossum” interchangeably.

In fact, a lot of authors and influential figures in American history have used these words interchangeably. Moreover, people will tend to recognize the word “possum” before “opossum” due to the popularity of the idiom. In popular culture, you’ll find the usage of possum a lot more than the correct scientific term “opossum”.

It’s a bit ironical that the animal that inspired this idiom is the Virginia opossum, which is very different from the actual possums found in Australia and New Zealand. If you ask any Australian, they’ll tell you that their possums are more closely linked to marsupials such as Kangaroos than the bare-tailed marsupials of North America referred to as opossums.


  1. Opossum vs. Possum—Is It the Same Animal? – Grammarly
  2. Possum vs. Opossum: Is There a Difference? – Merriam-Webster
  3. Possum vs. Opossum: What’s The Real Difference? – Bob Vila
  4. Possum vs. Opossum: Is There a Difference? – Merriam-Webster
  5. Possum vs. Opossum – The Correct Way to Use Each
  6. What’s The Difference Between “Possum” vs. “Opossum”?
  7. TOP 14 POSSUMS QUOTES – A-Z Quotes
  8. Opossum Quotes (3 quotes) – Today In Science History ®

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About the author

Dalia Y.: Dalia is an English Major and linguistics expert with an additional degree in Psychology. Dalia has featured articles on Forbes, Inc, Fast Company, Grammarly, and many more. She covers English, ESL, and all things grammar on GrammarBrain.

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