play possum

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playing possum
opossum under threat playing dead


English play + possum (from opossum), from the behaviour of the Virginia opossum, feigning death when threatened. First documented 1822.


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play possum (third-person singular simple present plays possum, present participle playing possum, simple past and past participle played possum)

  1. (idiomatic) To feign death; to remain quiet and still to escape attention or remain undetected; to lie low.
    Thinking fast, we played possum, hoping the bear wouldn't bother us.
    The soldier played possum, fooling the sniper.
    To keep the focus away from his client, the lawyer basically played possum during the entire complex trial, and his tactic paid off with an acquittal.
  2. (idiomatic) To feign sleep, illness, etc.
    When we used to get home late at night, I would play possum so my daddy would carry me inside and put me in bed.
  3. (idiomatic, dated) To dissemble or to feign ignorance; to disguise or conceal something in order to deceive.
    • 1833, Asa Greene, A Yankee Among the Nullifiers: An Auto-biography, page 32:
      Though, as it afterwards turned out, the Yankee had money enough about him, and was merely playing the ’possum all the while.
    • 1840, Edgar Allan Poe, The Business Man[1]:
      Never imposing upon any one myself, I suffered no one to play the possum with me.
    • 1858, James Russell Lowell, in a letter to O.W. Holmes, collected in The Complete Writings of... p31
      You have been holding-in all this while — possumus omnes, we all play the ’possum...
    • 1881, Alexander Lovett Stimson, History of the Express Business, page 354:
      As none came with the coach from Deadwood, I suppose the amount of funds was insignificant. You can't tell, though, for the stage company is liable to play possum sometimes.



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