Definitions for the phrase playing possum are listed below with examples:
1. Pretending to be dead or fast asleep.
2. Feigning ignorance about something.
The Origin of “Playing Possum”
It’s believed the phrase playing possum comes from the American opossum, also referred to simply as possum. When these animals feel threatened, perhaps by a nearby predator, they might feign death in an attempt to fool them. That’s right, these animals pretend to be dead! It’s thought that this tricky behavior opossums display is where the phrase “play possum” originates from. Today, when people feign being dead, asleep, or ignorant, it might be said that they are “playing possum,” as the saying goes.
What about the age of this phrase? I’ve seen it mentioned that it was first printed in the year 1822, but I couldn’t find any examples of it from that time. The earliest appearance I have seen of it in print is 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.’ “
- Jane’s children unintentionally kicked a ball into their mother’s car, resulting in a moderately sized dent. They tried playing possum to avoid punishment, but they got into trouble anyways.