Understanding the Idiom: "play possum" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: English play + possum (from opossum), from the behaviour of the Virginia opossum, feigning death when threatened. First documented 1822.
  • act possum
  • possum (verb)

When it comes to understanding idioms, there are countless phrases that can leave us scratching our heads. One such idiom is “play possum”. This phrase has been used for centuries and continues to be a popular expression today. But what does it mean exactly? And where did it come from?

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “play possum”

The idiom “play possum” is a phrase that has been used for centuries, but where did it come from? What is the historical context behind this peculiar expression?

To understand the origins of “play possum,” we must first look at the behavior of actual opossums. When threatened or attacked, these marsupials have a unique defense mechanism: they feign death. They become completely still, their eyes glaze over, and they emit a foul odor that mimics decay. This trick often fools predators into thinking that the opossum is already dead and not worth eating.

The term “playing possum” was first recorded in print in 1822, but it’s likely that people had been using this phrase long before then. It became popular in America during the mid-19th century when opossum hunting was a common pastime. Hunters would sometimes shoot an opossum only to find out later that it wasn’t actually dead – it was just playing possum.

Over time, “playing possum” came to be used as an idiom to describe someone who pretends to be asleep or unconscious in order to avoid dealing with a difficult situation. The idea is that by pretending to be out of commission, you can avoid confrontation or responsibility.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “play possum”

The idiom “play possum” is commonly used in English to describe a situation where someone pretends to be dead or unconscious in order to avoid danger or confrontation. However, this phrase can also have variations in its usage depending on the context and culture.

Variations in Meaning

In some cultures, playing dead is seen as a defense mechanism for animals when they are attacked by predators. This has led to the use of “playing possum” as an idiom that means pretending to be helpless or vulnerable in order to gain sympathy or avoid punishment.

Another variation of this idiom is “playing opossum,” which refers specifically to the North American marsupial known as the Virginia opossum. In this context, playing opossum means feigning death by lying still with eyes closed and tongue hanging out, emitting a foul odor from anal glands, and even drooling saliva.

Usage Examples

The idiom “play possum” can be used in various situations such as:

  • A child pretending to be asleep when they don’t want to go to school
  • A politician feigning ignorance about a controversial issue
  • A sports team acting weak during practice so their opponents underestimate them during a game
  • An employee pretending not to know how to do something so they won’t get assigned that task again

Note: It’s important not confuse playing possum with actually being unconscious or experiencing medical emergencies. If you suspect someone is truly unresponsive, seek professional help immediately.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “play possum”


When someone “plays possum”, they are pretending to be dead or unconscious in order to avoid danger or confrontation. Some synonyms for this phrase include:

– Feigning death

– Playing dead

– Pretending to be asleep

– Faking unconsciousness

All of these phrases convey the same idea as “playing possum” and can be used interchangeably.


On the other hand, antonyms for “playing possum” would include actions that involve being alert and active rather than pretending to be helpless. These could include:

– Being vigilant

– Staying awake

– Remaining conscious

– Fighting back

It’s important to note that while these actions are opposite of playing possum, they may not always be appropriate depending on the situation at hand.

Cultural Insights:

The idiom “playing possum” originated from North America where opossums (also known as ‘possums’) were commonly found. When threatened by a predator, opossums have been observed feigning death in order to deter their attacker. This behavior has since become associated with humans who pretend to be dead or unconscious in dangerous situations.

Additionally, some cultures view playing possum negatively because it involves deception and dishonesty. In contrast, others see it as a survival tactic and a way to protect oneself from harm.

Understanding the various synonyms and antonyms for “playing possum” can help us better communicate our intentions in certain situations while also providing insight into cultural perspectives on this idiom.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “play possum”

In order to fully grasp the meaning of the idiom “play possum”, it is important to practice using it in different contexts. The following exercises will help you become more familiar with this expression and use it correctly in your everyday conversations.

Exercise 1: Role-Playing

Gather a group of friends or colleagues and assign roles for each person. One person should act as if they are playing dead, while others try to figure out what is going on. This exercise will help you understand how the idiom can be used in situations where someone is pretending to be unaware or unresponsive.

Exercise 2: Writing Prompts

Create writing prompts that incorporate the idiom “play possum”. For example, write a short story about a character who pretends to be asleep during an important meeting. This exercise will help you think creatively about how to use the expression in different scenarios.

Writing Prompt Example: You’re at a party when suddenly someone starts shooting. Everyone runs away but you decide to play possum until the shooter leaves.

By practicing these exercises, you’ll gain confidence in using the idiom “play possum” correctly and effectively in your daily life. Remember that idioms can have multiple meanings depending on context, so always make sure you understand the situation before using them!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “play possum”

When it comes to using idioms, it’s important to understand their meanings and proper usage. The idiom “play possum” is no exception. However, there are some common mistakes that people make when using this expression.

One mistake is using the idiom in situations where it doesn’t apply. “Play possum” means pretending to be dead or unconscious in order to avoid danger or harm. It should not be used in contexts where someone is simply being lazy or avoiding responsibility.

Another mistake is misusing the tense of the verb “play”. The correct form of the idiom is “playing possum”, not “played possum” or “plays possum”. This may seem like a small detail, but using the wrong tense can change the meaning of the expression.

A third mistake is overusing the idiom. While idioms can add color and personality to language, they lose their impact if they are used too frequently. Using “play possum” every time you want to describe someone pretending to be something they’re not can become tiresome for your audience.

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