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What Does the Oft-used Idiom 'Playing Possum' Truly Mean?

Mary Anthony Feb 15, 2019
We always have people around and also situations that we'd love to zone out from. Of course feigning in the face of danger can come in handy sometimes. Here we explain the meaning and the origination behind the idiom 'playing possum'.
Playing Possum is also known as 'Apparent Death', it is an aggressive defense demeanor in which an animal poses as if dead. Other well-known terms are 'tonic immobility' or 'thanatosis'.
Everyone of us has that one friend who talks non-stop about menial things in life, and it can be so bothersome. Well, there are a lucky few who play possum through situations like these by nodding or just answering in monosyllables giving the annoying person the illusion of being part of the conversation.
Animals too have this as a behavioral tendency to avoid being hunted by predators. Certain mammals, snakes, spiders, insects, and frogs survive the toughest of situations simply by feigning death. Whether its surviving emotionally or physically, playing possum definitely goes a long way.


"Playing Possum" means to pretend to be dead or feign sleep or the ability to appear fallacious from being involved in something in order to avoid danger, or from being attacked, or lying low for the situation to pass.


The American Opossum which is popularly known as possum is an omnivore mammal found mostly in the Central and North American regions. They are the only marsupial or pouched mammals habituating the United States. They live a scavenger life and their diet consists of grass, nuts, fruits, mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes, and chicken.
These tiny creatures often face danger from other animals such as dogs, foxes, and bobcats. While confronting such a situation, they feign death by lowering their metabolism and flip onto their sides and lie still on the ground with their eyes shut or sodding fixedly into blank space.
They stretch their tongues out and play dead. This ploy baffles the predator and puts it off guard thereby allowing the opossum a chance to escape. Hence this survival trait is popularly termed as "Playing Possum".

Origin of the Expression in Literary terms with Examples

The idiom is an American expression and is said to have originated in the written form in 1822 but there are no available sources to verify the claim.
The earliest read form comes from the 1843 Washington Globe post which says : "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'."


1. There was an angry grizzly bear heading towards the camping site, so everyone quickly played possum, as that was the best defense which could be used against this animal.

It is a well-known fact that playing dead always works when attacked by a grizzly as these bears do not hunt dead creatures.
2. I'm gonna need a strong one, it's gonna be a long one
In case you haven't heard he stopped loving her today
So I'm dusting off the vinyl, it's gonna be an all-nigher
I'm warning you now, from here on out, boys, I'll be the DJ
So find a drink or find a road, I'm 'bout to drop a needle on some ol' no show
You're gonna want an ashtray and a bottle
I'm going deep, I'm going long 'till I run that needle through every last song
He ever sung, so pour 'em strong and smoke 'em if you got 'em

Tonight I'm playing Possum
These lyrics are taken from the song 'Tonight I'm playing Possum' by Randy Travis, the song was written by Keith Gattis and it pays tribute to the greatest country singer, George Jones.
The song describes a probable country music fan's reaction to the death of his idolized singer George Jones, the fan would deny the fact that he died and would spend the evening drinking and listening to old records of the country singer.
3. Glen was avoiding his appointment with the dentist by sleeping in his room. His younger sister could not resist annoying him, so she jumped on him because she knew he was just playing possum.

We dread a visit to the dentist's and it's like a nightmare to a kid, but of course there are younger siblings who love to make fun of such situations.
4. "For Jo had been playing possum and was not nearly so badly hurt as he had appeared to be". - "Frontier Boys on the Coast" by Capt. Wyn Roosevelt.

This sentence is extracted from the book 'Frontier Boys on the Coast' by Capt. Wyn Roosevelt. The story revolves around the adventures of American boys Jim, Joe, and Tom Darlington.
When situations get heated and you need to take a break or get into your comfort zone to relax, and come back with vengeance - playing possum can actually help you keep your calm.