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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)
- (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.
- 1886 October – 1887 January, H[enry] Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., published 1887, →OCLC:
- What happened to Job after that I am sure I do not know, but my own impression is that he lay still upon the corpse of his deceased assailant, "playing 'possum" as the Americans say.
- (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.
- (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:
- 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.
- act possum
- possum (verb)
to pretend to be dead; lie low — See also translations at lie low
to feign sleep, illness, etc.
(dated in English) to dissemble or to feign ignorance; to disguise or conceal something in order to deceive