What’s The Difference Between “Possum” vs. “Opossum”?

close-up of an opossum, blue filter

Possum and opossum are two words that many people think are synonyms or alternate spellings of the same word. While there is some truth to that, these words can actually be used to refer to different animals.

In this article, we will explain exactly what a possum and an opossum is and the difference between how the words possum and opossum are used in zoology.

Quick summary

The word opossum refers to many different species of marsupials native to North and South America. The word possum has been used to refer to a number of species of marsupials native to Australia and nearby islands. The word possum is also often used informally to refer to an opossum.

What is a possum?

If you live in the Americas, you might think you know what a possum is. While this word is commonly used in the United States to refer to a specific animal, technically possums don’t live in the Americas. In zoology, the word possum is used to refer to multiple species of tree-dwelling marsupials native to Australia and nearby islands. The possums of Australia are small, cute animals with large ears and furry prehensile tails.

These animals are members of the large Phalangeridae family of marsupials. While the name possum is used to refer to many members of this family, the animals most commonly referred to as possums are the brushtail possums of the genus Trichosurus, such as the common brushtail possum.

What is an opossum?

Now, let’s return to the Americas. In zoology, the word opossum is used to refer to members of the Didelphidae family of marsupials. Only one of these animals—albeit a very common one—is native to North America and the rest live in Central and South America.

The animal that most Americans are familiar with, and which is often informally called a possum, is the North American marsupial known as the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Unlike the Australian possums, this rat-like marsupial has smaller ears, a fleshy tail, and a face full of pointy teeth. The Virginia opossum is the animal that is famous for its strategy of pretending to be dead—playing possum—in order to avoid being attacked by predators.

Speaking of furry little creatures, what exactly is a gopher? Or a woodchuck? Are you sure you know the difference?

Where do possum and opossum come from? 

The word opossum is first recorded in the early 1600s. It comes from a Virginia Algonquin word that is transcribed into English as aposoum, opassom, and other similar spellings. This word translates to “white beast” or “white dog” and likely refers to the Virginia opossum’s white fur.

The word possum is also first recorded in the early 1600s and comes from the word … opossum. English, you have once again unnecessarily confused us all. Much like today, the word possum was used as a shortening of opossum to also refer to the Virginia opossum and its relatives.

Apparently the source of all of this confusion is the fault of 18th century English explorer Sir Joseph Banks. When traveling to Australia, Banks described the bushy marsupials he saw as being members of the opossum family (even though they totally weren’t). As in the Americas, the name was shortened to possum and has stuck there ever since. Thanks, Joe!

Possum vs opossum pronunciation

The word opossum is pronounced “uh-pos-uhm” or “pos-uhm” as if the “o” wasn’t there. (You are on thin ice, English.)

The word possum is pronounced “pos-uhm.”

Examples of possum and opossum in a sentence

  • I saw an opossum run across the road this morning.
  • The possums that live in Australia are really cute.
  • An opossum will play possum if it feels it is in danger.
Previous "Hanny's Voorwerp" Is A Green Space Blob With An Unusual Name Next How Tetris Got Its Name