The Innocence Mission: The Brotherhood of Man

Possum Playing Possum

I've heard the term "playing possum" all my life, but I'd never seen the thing itself happen until Friday night. I went out as usual with my two dogs, the larger one, Lucy, not on a leash, because she's pretty obedient, the smaller one, Andy, on a leash, because he isn't. As we started down the street, the larger one suddenly took off running in the way she only does when she's chasing an animal. She ran down the driveway of the house next door and I heard some growling and snarling, then silence.

Catching up to her with my flashlight, I found her standing over a possum which was lying perfectly still, on its side. It didn't show any sign of injury, but it looked pretty dead. It didn't even seem to be breathing. In fact it looked a lot like this, except that its fur wasn't disarranged this way. 

Next morning it was gone. I suppose it's possible that Lucy killed it and something else dragged it away, but that's doubtful--I don't know what, except another dog, would have done that, and we don't generally have dogs running loose in our neighborhood. I think it wasn't dead at all, and its trick worked. It was interesting to see the thing that gave rise to that well-known phrase.


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Yes, we got out of the car one evening and found Duke standing over a possum in the same condition. It's mouth was slightly open and you could see all it's sharp little teeth. Yikes! It ran off shortly after we went into the house and Duke, sensing dinner in the offing, left it unguarded.


Andy might have done some damage if I had let him, but Lucy didn't seem to be interested in molesting the possum any further after it shut down on her that way. No fun, I guess.

In my home state of Kentucky they have an alternative expression for "playing possum" (although that expression is commonly used as well). When a possum is attacked, or even just cornered, it will "sull up." I always thought the phrase was immensely expressive even though I never understood exactly what its origins were. I'm guessing that it's an obsolete verb form from which we get the past participle "sullen." Anybody know if I'm right?

I'm familiar with "sull up" but have only heard it applied to people. In context it seemed to mean "become sullen," (e.g. "she'll sull up if she don't get her way") so I think you're right, but I haven't researched it.

When I saw that you had commented on this thread I thought sure you were going to take the opportunity to praise your hound. Though I suppose that, as a coonhound, he may consider possums beneath notice.

According to the lexicographers of the OED, "sullen" is a modern (16th-cent.) form of Middle English "solein" (which originally meant "unique", and eventually "unsociable"), and "to sull" is a 19th-century back-formation that treats "sullen" as though it were a participle (when it wasn't originally).

I hate it when people do that--invent new uses of words that don't follow the rules. Like making verbs out of nouns (endemic in the US), e.g. "partner" as a verb, as in "We're partnering with Apple to control the world."

You and Nero Wolfe.


And yet I've done it myself. I used "google" as a verb long before I heard it from anyone else. Which just goes to show you how deep the hold of original sin is.

I have to say, though, that "google" invites the usage, since the "le" ending is found on a lot of verbs, e.g. "tickle," "giggle,", "whistle"... So I did it without full consent of the will.

I wonder if I say something what Maclin said will show up.


"Friended" is the worst.


The thing that's being weird about the comments is that the sidebar shows different comments in different threads and sometimes comments that are three or four back don't show up when you click on them, while newer comments do.

I realize that this is just an anomaly that will pass. It's just that commenting on this is more fun than working.


So in other words, Paul, the verb "sull" has roughly the same etymological respectability as "liaise," my own nominee for worst back-formation ever. I'm disappointed.

As for bragging about my coonhound, Mac, the embarrassing truth is that she has never hunted raccoon or anything else. She did once manage to catch a rather stupid and clumsy rabbit in our backyard.

Yeah, I agree about "liaise". I don't like "friended," either, but that's worse. Also "surveille," although now that I think about it, it may be legit--I mean, if the noun is "surveillance," then it would follow.

But you're untroubled by possums and coons, right, Jeff? Maybe she's so good her reputation keeps them away.

I am ashamed to say that I once used the word "friended."

Original Sin indeed...

The voices crying out to disallow this project are the same intolerant bigoted voiced that led to the rise of the brutal regimes in Germany and China and Italy in the middle of the last century. The sensitivity of the victims - is not a real excuse - that is a simple excuse to allow xenophobic, hostile, racist and prejudiced thinking to take root in our democracy. muslims died in the collapse of the towers as did jews and christians and non-believers. This was not an attack by the world muslims on America. It was an attack by a handful of thugs. We cannot let our own native thugs take control of this debate. Please people, come to your senses.

I thought you were a ninny when I first read this, but then I clicked on your link, now removed, and found that you're apparently just a spammer.

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