Possum Without the O

By any other name, it would taste as sweet

I've been enjoying Bill Landry's book, Appalachian Tales & Heartland Adventures. It chronicles the back story of the long-running WBIR series of anecdotal stories about backwoods crafts, sports, cuisine. It's full of great photographs, and is a lot like the series itself: interesting, unpretentious, surprising, funny—and, though they'd probably prefer you not say the word too loud, educational. It was probably the best-done TV project in Knoxville history, and the book brings out several of the talented contributors who didn't ever get on camera.

For years, its premise was perplexing to me. The Heartland crew would drive hundreds of miles, into Kentucky or Alabama or West Tennessee, to find another rural subject, while mostly avoiding the more complex stories of the cities and towns closer at hand. Almost every city in America is surrounded by countryside, many cities by countryside more sparsely developed, more "rural," than East Tennessee is. But since around 1930, and for several interesting reasons, Knoxville's prevailing cultural focus has been on Country.

Knoxville has gained from the unusual association, especially in the realm of music. But when it becomes the main emphasis of a community, a country focus can imply limits on what's possible, in terms of industry, or art, or ethnic diversity. It leaves many with the impression that anything that ever happened here must have been some folksy homespun version. A newcomer, upon hearing that the University of Tennessee has origins in the 1790s, responded—seriously, I'm afraid—"What would these mountain people need with a university?"

For better and worse, 20th-century Knoxville evolved as Country City, U.S.A., and Heartland was a latter-day culmination of that focus. But in the end, Heartland accomplished something of national importance, maybe at the last possible moment. Much of the culture they captured on video wasn't limited to East Tennessee—it was rural America—but in the age of television and Walmart it was fading.

Even by the 1980s, things were changing rapidly. As Heartland was getting started, I was working as an investigator for a regional law firm, and I often ventured to remote places accessible only by dirt or gravel roads, seeking witnesses. I encountered only a few of the purest sort of colorful country characters the Heartland folks celebrated. By 1983, country kids were starting to wear New Wave mullets. People who lived on mountainsides got back to the cabin in time to watch Miami Vice.

Heartland may have caught the end of a sort of anti-civilization, and distilled it. If they started The Heartland Series today, rather than 25 years ago, it wouldn't have been nearly as distinctive.


I have only one complaint about the book. In Chapter 10, Landry embarks on a culinary adventure. He talks about the lengths to which he went to find and prepare possum to taste it. Many might assume he of all East Tennesseans would know the delicacy well, but that wasn't the case, as he makes clear. His struggles reminded me of those of another Tennessee native, legendary proto-gonzo journalist Richard Halliburton, who, endeavoring to write about cannibal culture credibly, endeavored, perhaps successfully, to learn what human flesh tastes like.

My complaint is not that Landry ate possum. It's that he spells it opossum. Consistently, and without explanation. Did some persnickety copy editor insist on that?

There's been a presumption that possum is substandard, an East Tennessee word for opossum. A certain editor from the Midwest thought it was funny and Tennessee-colloquial to use the possum spelling. He allowed it once, at my insistence, but seemed to think himself magnanimously folksy. "We'll spell it without the O!" he declared, in impudent defiance.

But I grew up using the word without the O: possum without ironic quotation marks. The popular comic character Pogo was, properly, Pogo Possum. And does anybody ever "play opossum"?

When anyone uses the word opossum casually, it startles me. I wonder if they're a botanist or taxonomist by profession, or perhaps Irish.

I remember one kid in school, 45 years ago, who insisted on opossum. Needless to say, he didn't have any friends.

My Webster's 11th Collegiate favors opossum, but it also lists possum without the dreaded "substandard" slur. Webster's allows that the word possum goes back to 1613. That's before any human ever spoke English in what we now know as the Appalachians.

The word opossum is only three years older, dating from 1610. It is itself just an Anglicized approximation of an Algonquin Indian word, meaning "white dog."

I checked Google. Possum registered almost 16 million sites. Opossum, under 6 million. Globally, the word possum would seem more than twice as prevalent as the word opossum.

Of course, some of that may be a reference to the Latin irregular verb possum, which means "I am able." But refining the search suggests it's not a very big chunk.

Historically, in old Knoxville newspapers, I see the word possum more than opossum in reference to the game—if you can call it that—which was often sold for not much on Market Square.

Then there's ngram, a pretty fascinating online way to chart the comparative frequency of words by their appearances in books from 1800 to 2000. In the year 1800, the first year ngram registers, possum was about four times as frequent—in English-language books published in America and England—as opossum.

But around 1850, opossum came to the fore, and was much more prominent in books for most of the Victorian era. But then around 1900, possum caught up, and the two words have been swapping the lead since then. Possum was more frequent ca. 1935 to 1945, but opossum came roaring back in the mid-1950s, and dominated for a time, but only until the early 1980s.

I think we need to acknowledge maybe we've reached the age when the word opossum is the equivalent of the word ourang-outang. Which is how it was spelled when an unfortunate orangutan was put on exhibit on Gay Street about 200 years ago.

But you can call it an ourang-outang if you want to.