Play possum

Play possum is an idiom that originated in the United States. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, on the ball, barking up the wrong tree, hit the nail on the head, kick the bucket, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom play possum, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

Play possum is an idiom that means feigning death, pretending to be dead when faced with a life-threatening situation. Hikers and campers are often admonished to play possum if faced with an attack from a grizzly bear. Often, a grizzly bear will lose interest in its prey if it does not put up a fight. However, this is not always the case. Play possum is also used to describe someone who is pretending to be asleep. The idiom play possum appeared sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, and is a reference to the defense mechanism displayed by the marsupial American opossum, more frequently referred to as a possum. This process is known scientifically as tonic immobility or thanatosis, or commonly referred to as playing dead. Other animals play possum as a defense mechanism, including fire-bellied toads and hognose snakes. Related phrases are plays possum, played possum, playing possum.


A few moments later he came to but realized that he had still better “play possum.” (The Manitoulin Expositor)

Playing possum can be fun, especially for an audience member who gets to join the cast up on stage for a live production in Pauls Valley later this week. (The Pauls Valley Democrat)

But it turned out Stokes had been playing possum as he attacked Australia’s bowlers on day four and smashed his last 84 runs from just 67 balls. (The Daily Mail)

And now he says he could have won a better deal, which seems incredulous as he played possum and undermined the bipartisan group of politicians federally and provincially who were all working together in the best interests of Canada. (The Toronto Sun)

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