Playing Possum – Meaning and Origin


Definitions for the phrase playing possum are listed below with examples:

1. Pretending to be dead or fast asleep.

Example: Liam decided to play possum when his mother called him to wash the dishes, as he thought it might get him out of that responsibility.

2. Feigning ignorance about something.

Example: I accidentally broke my brother’s tablet and I was afraid to tell him, so when he asked me about it, I played possum. However, later that day, I told him what happened.

1. Playing dead
2. Playing dumb

Phrase: Playing Possum - an opossum in the woods.
Sometimes possums feign death to fool their predators.

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.’ “

Example Sentence(s)

  • 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.

Similar Example:

  • Does anyone know why there is a hole in the kitchen wall? Don’t play dumb with me, I want to know what happened.

Tip: Looking for more common expressions? Know Your Phrase has a list of popular expressions that you can look through. In fact, there are hundreds of phrases and sayings on here. You can learn what they mean, and for some of them, you might be able to find out where the phrase comes from. To start browsing through the list, use the menu at the top.