Playing Possum – Meaning and Origin

Meaning:

Pretending to be dead, or to be deceitful about something.

Example: Hugo went camping with his family. He had a large tent and a warm fire burning; it was all very relaxing. However, in the middle of the day, Hugo spotted a big bear near his camping site and so he had everyone hide inside the tent. He wondered if playing possum would fool the bear, but being unsure, he didn’t want to risk it.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Playing dead
Putting up a front
Playing possum, an opossum in the woods.
Possums pretend to be dead to fool predators.

‘Playing Possum’ Its Origin

This phrase comes from the American opossum, commonly referred to simply as possums. These animals can be quite deceiving at times, because if they ever feel threatened, possums will feign death in order to try and fool nearby predators. Yes, that’s right, these animals pretend to be dead, and this can potentially fool anyone watching. Due to this tricky behavior, it eventually began to be applied to people who are thought to be acting in a similar, deceitful way.

Regarding the age of this expression, there are sources which claim it was first printed in the year 1822, but I’m unable to find a written form of it from that time. The earliest recording I could find, though, is not too long after that year. It comes from the Washington Globe, printed in 1843, where it reads:

“So it seems the Whigs are to ‘play possum’ again in the coming campaign, though one would suppose they had bad experience enough in that game to teach them that ‘honesty is the best policy.’ “


Example Sentence(s)

  1. Jane’s car had a dent in it. This dent was not there last night, so she asked her children if they knew how it got there. Even though they knew how, they decided to play possum because they didn’t want to get grounded.

Note: Looking for a specific expression? We have a list of popular expressions that you can look through that can help you find it. Curious about the origins for a certain saying? Well, we have those too, but keep in mind that the origins of some phrases are not known.

When this happens, what will generally be included on the page is either a theory as to how an expression may have come to be, or if not that, then I’ll usually try to find the oldest known quote of the expression and include that. The purpose of the quote is to give you an indication for how far back in history the phrase goes.