This is the first of a series of blog posts celebrating Didelphis virginiana, commonly known as the North American opossum. (Find the whole series here!) This cat-sized nocturnal animal is the only new world marsupial that lives north of Mexico, and therefore the only marsupial native to the United States. In most American dialects of English, the initial o isn’t pronounced, so most Americans call the animal a “possum.”
Whether you think the possum is cute or creepy (and there are lots of people on both sides of that issue), there’s no question that the critter features in a significant body of folklore, which I’ll be exploring in this series. In this first post I’ll focus on the expression “awesome possum,” an item of folk speech with a fairly long history and a wide currency in American life. Although it originally referred to opossums themselves, it has come to be an expression simply meaning “excellent.” It’s an intensification of “awesome” just like the similar phrase “awesome-sauce,” and it’s sometimes used as a response to the exclamation “awesome!” To find out more, you can check out the entry on “awesome possum” in Urban Dictionary, a site archived as part of AFC’s Web Cultures Web Archive. One of the definitions there states:
Awesome Possum. A word which means the same as ‘awesome’, except that by adding ‘possum’ at the end it sounds waaaay more awesome. Just because it rhymes.
We can expand on this a little to say why “awesome possum” is linguistically interesting; it’s a phrase created through rhyming reduplication. Other examples of this kind of phrase are, for example, “fuddy-duddy,” “heebie-jeebies,” and “hurly burly.” Specifically, “awesome possum” is a phrase in which an existing word is reduplicated with a rhyming echo-word which serves to intensify the meaning of the first word, which is something we also observe in such phrases as “super duper,” “teenie weenie,” and “neato burrito.”
It may surprise you to read that the formulation “awesome possum” or “awesome opossum” is over a century old. It goes back at least to 1909, when Fur-Fish-Game magazine ran a feature on hunting and trapping for fur in New York City. Of the great borough of Staten Island, they wrote:
Here roam some of the fast departing fur bearing animals of the metropolis — the terrible raccoon and the awesome opossum. Here also can be heard the horrible shrieks of the muskrat, as it dives into the inky waters of the black pools. Occasionally a skunk swims over from the mainland, to add spice to the balmy odors that sweep from Bayonne. Safe haven there is for the carnivores of the island but for the fact that the jungle hunters are afoot these nights.
It’s hard to determine when the expression “awesome possum” was separated from discussions of the opossum itself, but by the early 1980s the phrase existed as both a ship name and a name for a horse. Because it was being applied in such different contexts, it’s likely that by then it had taken on its current form: an ordinary vernacular expression used to describe anything that was thought to be “awesome.”
By the early 1990s the expression “awesome possum” was popular enough that it generated at least one copyright lawsuit, in which the Library of Congress was invoked in several arguments. The case was Roginski v. Time Warner Interactive, Inc., and involved the video game Awesome Possum Kicks Dr. Machino’s Butt, which included a brief Awesome Possum comic book in its instruction manual. Author Paul Roginski sued Time Warner for infringement, showing that he had sent copies of a different Awesome Possum comic book to the Copyright Office, and subsequently to several publishers, the previous year. Roginski had no evidence that the Time Warner team had seen his still-unpublished book, but he contended that they could have, through a tip-off by friends at one of the publishers, or through research here in the Library of Congress! Sadly for Roginski, the court found that there was no evidence the video game (or the comic in its manual) was in any way based on his work.
The case, which you can read at the Justia blog, was filled with astute but amusing analysis of popular culture:
Defendants did not use Roginski’s term “magnificent marsupial” to describe their possum. Instead, the defendants used the term “mild-mannered” to describe the awesome possum’s disposition. The use of such a term to describe a superhero is not surprising. For example, Superman is known for his “mild-mannered” disposition while incognito as Clark Kent. Further, Underdog was introduced as a mild-mannered “shoe shine boy” until the cries of the innocent required use of his superpowers. In using the term “mild-mannered,” defendants may have been modeling their superhero in a similar fashion.
Since the Roginski-Time Warner suit, Awesome Possum has been used in the title of many children’s books, although only one seems to have a catalog entry at the Library of Congress. More importantly, the phrase is in common usage, with about a quarter-million appearances on web pages and other documents indexed by google.
Although the phrase “awesome possum” is often used with no reference at all to opossums, in some cases the phrase is used to describe exactly why the possum is awesome. Examples of the animal’s awesome traits include: a resistance to rabies due to its low body temperature; opposable thumbs on its back legs and a prehensile tail, making it very hard to dislodge from a tree branch; the behavior of “playing dead,” which actually seems to be an involuntary fainting reaction to stress; and the ability to eat over 5,000 ticks a year, making its neighborhood safer for people and pets alike.
One of my favorite blogs about the opossum was written by my friend Ben Porter, a master naturalist at the Marshy Point Nature Center in Baltimore. Please read it if you have a moment to learn more about the awesome possum!
In future installments, we’ll get into the opossum as it appears in myths and stories, as well as songs, dances, and tunes. We’ll also explore the histories of several U.S. presidents and their various relationships with the marsupial. And, sadly for some of you perhaps, we’ll talk about the opossum and American foodways—turns out possum is a delicacy in some circles!