George Stimpson

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Which is correct, possum or opossum?

Some authorities suppose that the name of the only North American marsupial or pouched animal should be simply possum and not opossum. But opossum appears to be the original and correct form and possum only a shortened form. Opossum resulted when the early English colonists attempted to render the Indian name and does not suggest that the animal is of Gaelic ancestry. In his history of Virginia, Captain John Smith wrote: "An Opassum hath a head like a swine, a tail like a rat, and is of the bigness of a cat. Under her bellye she [page 3] hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and suckleth her young." Many other early writers, however, wrote the word possum, and the short form still prevails in possum grape, possum haw, possum oak, possumwood and playing possum. The latter refers to the opossum's curious habit of curling up and acting as if it were dead when frightened or alarmed.