I saw a scraggy little white dog today, and I said to Aina, “That dog used to be an opossum.”
OK, that was maybe just a teeny bit inaccurate. The dog had actual fur on its tail. It had a face like a dog, or at least more like a dog than an opossum. But dogs and opossums are not opposites. They’re just… like bats and birds. Morphologically superficially similar, phylogenetically distinct, and differing – starkly, on average – on the cuteness scale.
It’s amusing to see descriptions of opossums by early English invaders of North America. In 1612, John Smith wrote, “An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat.” This is basically accurate, except for “an head like a Swine.” I don’t know what kind of swine he had, but in my world a possum is a sketchy rat-looking beast from front to back. I think if I had to describe an opossum it would be “Like a big grizzled old rat that just ran a marathon and is trying to decide whether to die or kill someone.”
Not that opossums are anything to be scared of. But the first time I can recall seeing one in person, it did make my flesh crawl a bit. I was walking at night on Orchard Street in Somerville, Massachusetts, and my neck hairs suddenly went all razorback as if to say “You fool, you have failed to notice a demon lurking nearby.” I turned and looked into a driveway and there was this thing that looked like someone’s pet rat had just eaten the whole family and was just panting there, overfull, thinking about whether Rolaids or Gaviscon would be better. It looked at me blankly without particularly moving. I walked on, nerve ends sparking down, wondering what in the heck that was.
I know now that if I had made a threatening move towards the creature, it probably would have fallen on its side and lain as if dead of reflux, its teeth bared and mouth frothing (Gaviscon it was!), and its anal glands secreting… something. Possums have a reputation for this threat response, which might seem maladaptive except that when they are like that, they look incredibly unappetizing and smell pretty bad too. A buzzard would take one glance and head for the salad bar.
This is in spite of the fact that they are apparently delicious. William Strachey (another Virgina invader along with John Smith) described the opossum as “a beast in bigness of a pig and in taste alike.” In 1763, John Wesley wrote, “The tender young of the Opossum are delicate Morsels.” Many people have hunted them, including President Jimmy Carter. (Herbert Hoover, on the other hand, kept one as a pet. Take what you know of the character of these two presidents and make your own judgements.) They are, though, fairly fatty (I read)… speaking of reflux. Perhaps we should make them into soup, since they are mar-soup-ials. (Ah ha ha ha. No, but seriously, they carry their babies in a pouch. Not boil-n-bag, either.)
You may by this point have noticed that sometimes I say opossum and sometimes I say possum. This isn’t quite like how for years I thought an aspidistra was an aspidispstra. Many people call an opossum a possum, just like how many people don’t say the e in coyote, and somewhat like how vermin became varmint and chitterling became chitlin. Can I see and maintain the distinction between opossum and the aphetic possum? I don’t necessarily want to, but yes, I can.
Which, in Latin, is possum. “I can” is, I mean. “I can speak Latin” in Latin is Possum Latine loqui. A famous line of Latin using that word is Martial’s epigram, “Nec tecum possum vivere, nec sine te.” Which means “I can’t live with you, I can’t live without you.” (The economy of Latin makes it more exactly “Neither with you can I live, nor without you.”) That line is directly repudiated by that other Latin poet, Bono Vox, who is known for singing “I can live with or without you.” (Yes, U2.) I guess he could have made it actual Latin, “Et tecum possume vivere, et sine te.” But I don’t know whether Bono has ever et possum. Jimmy Carter has.
Notwithstanding all that, the opossum is not a Latin animal. It can be found in Latin America, though, and all up the east side of North America. Its name – the one we use in English, I mean, not all the other names in all the other languages – comes from a Powhatan word (the language of the people whose turf the Virginia colonists were camping out on) meaning ‘white dog’ – or, anyway, ‘white dog-like creature’.
So, anyway, to go back to the beginning of all this, I’m wondering if there’s a word for ‘white opossum-like creature’ that I could apply to that sketchy dog. Or can I just cancel out the duplicates in ‘white white-dog-like-creature–like creature’ and end up with dog?