Playing possum?

中国日报网 2012-11-13 14:05



Playing possum?

Reader question:

Arnold could be accused of playing possum... What does “playing possum” mean exactly?

My comments:

Or playing opossum.

Arnold could be accused of playing opossum, meaning people could fault him for pretending to be dead, as the Australian marsupial is wont to do in face of danger, which usually triggers a fight or flight reaction from animals and, indeed, people. Precisely, Arnold is accused of being inactive, doing nothing when they think he should be doing something.

Playing possum is a variation from playing opossum (British spelling).

Opossum, you see, is one of the many marsupials (mammals with a pouch for rearing babies) mostly found in Australia. Unlike other marsupials such as the kangaroo or the koala bear, opossums are an especially timid creature. When they are scared, they play dead by way of evading their predator. PLAY dead, that is, by pretending to be dead, not moving a limb, acting as if they were dead. People who first observed this behavior must have deemed it a great strategy and hence created the term “play opossum” or “play possum”.

Some think that maybe the opossums are just too scared to move but at any rate playing dead can be a great strategy in face of danger, as an eagle surveying the earth from the sky can surely attest. If the eagle will testify, that is, it will say that generally speaking it is moving objects that attract attention; stationary objects do not.

Anyways, you understand that when people are accused of playing possum or opossum, they are faulted for burying their head in the sand, like many a politician for instance in face of emerging social problems and not doing what they’re supposed to do.

In other words, they’re not asserting themselves – not making an all-out effort and not giving it their all.

Alright, here are media examples of people and other creatures playing possum, with or without a good reason:

1. At Cedar Key, about 2,000 pounds of claws are processed each night, with the average boat coming in with 250 pounds.

Last season, one of the best in recent memory, the figure was closer to 5,000 pounds per night at Cedar Key. All told, more than 534,000 pounds of claws were harvested in Citrus County. The dockside value was $3.1-million.

Blame the mild weather for this season’s sluggish start.

Without westerly winds to stir the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, providing cover from octopus and other predators, crabs are hesitant to move about.

So when fishermen pull up their traps, baited with pigs’ feet or mullet, they are often empty.

“Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of crabs out there. They’re playing possum right now,” said Hank Sevor, who has been crabbing for nearly half his 40 years.

When a crab is inside the trap, it is quickly removed and measured. If big enough, fishermen snap off both pincers and throw the body back into the water.

The technique is to grasp a claw with one hand, the crab with the other, and twist down and away from the body.

As a natural defense, the crab will drop the claw with a clean, bloodless break, and begin growing a new one. Crabs usually can regrow their claws three or four times during their lifetime.

- Crabs are ‘playing possum’ from traps, St. Petersburg Times, November 3, 2002.

2. The trial of bomber and mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik has been rolling throughout the week, with online newspapers reporting the word-for-word questioning of the man, gruesome details included. Breivik has been retelling the story of what he did on that fateful day last summer, including details of how he shot some of his young victims several times in their heads, because he “saw that they were playing possum”. Relatives, friends and even court psychiatrists have at times left the courtroom during his tales, due to the gruesome nature of his actions and the details that emerge.

News coverage has been strange, in some cases. For a while, one of the two largest newspapers in Norway, Dagbladet, seemed to try and distance itself from the whole thing, focusing on minor details existing in the courtroom, such as their article on how Breivik was using a “prison pen” to take notes in the two days leading up to his examination. “Breivik uses special pen in court”, was their headline for that little nugget. By the way, that pen is a common type of “writing implement” used in prisons, holding areas, and where people aren’t all that right in the head (read “psych wards”), so its use in the trial shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

There have also been some strange decisions made by the media, on behalf of the public, it seems, to censor some parts of the trial. Amongst the censored parts were Breivik’s amateurish Youtube propaganda movie, featuring dubious historical claims and depictions of templar knights, with a backdrop consisting of strange chanting. The media decided to “blackstrip” the movie, fearing, apparently, its effect on other “crazies” out there. Which is something the media should never, never do. Someone hasn’t read their history, and have missed that censorship is, in every sense of the word, an abomination.

Counterpointing the censorship, newspapers have been referencing Breivik’s explanation of his reasoning, reasons and actions verbatim, to the horror of every feeling human being who have read it all. It is, perhaps, telling that even the court psychiatrist has decided not to follow it all anymore, and Breivik’s defense council tells the public to “turn off your TV, for God’s sake” if the story becomes too much to handle.

- Lone Wolf Trial in Norway: Horror Shows & Prison Pens,, April 21, 2012.

3. Kevin Durant did it again…Finally. He stepped up late and slayed Chicago in crunch time with that sweet stroke that has stopped so many in the past. But after seeing how he took over the game in the final 3 1/2 minutes, you can’t help but wonder what took him so long to put away the Bulls. He easily could have taken control of the wheel and put his foot on the gas much earlier. But he didn’t. It’s anyone’s guess as to why. For now, all we really know is that the result still was a favorable one, as he scored six of the Thunder’s final eight points, including two jumpers in the final 47 seconds to seal a road win. The takeaway after the game, however, was clear: the Durant that we’re watching this year is a new blend of ballplayer that we all must get used to seeing. No longer is he satisfied simply with scoring. He wants to set up teammates and he’s willing to sacrifice significantly to do it. It’s a shocking show of maturity given Durant’s scoring prowess. But this appears to be the new Durant. We could be forced to digest it whether we like it or not.

•Russell Westbrook on KD playing an almost passive game: “I think Kevin’s just playing his game. He lets the game come to him. Everybody’s got different personalities. Kevin’s the laid-back type. Everybody knows me as the crazy type. So my job is to do that and his job is to be relaxed.”

•Westbrook again said something tonight that he’s repeatedly said in the past. KD’s the go-to guy down the stretch. It’s a stance Westbrook always has maintained and one that throws dirt on anyone who tries to claim Westbrook wants to be the man. “It was his time,” Westbrook said of Durant in crunch time. “Everybody knows that’s his time. And he took his time and got the shots he needed.”

•Maybe that’s what’s in play here. Maybe Durant is letting Westbrook do his thing for three quarters and taking the reins in the fourth. Maybe that’s something the two stars have agreed to so there can be harmony.

•How else can you explain Durant simply watching Westbrook throw up shot after shot throughout the first three quarters tonight, missing more than 70 percent of them? Durant literally did nothing. He didn’t demand the ball. He didn’t make a fuss. He didn’t even appear to try to corral Westbrook. He just jogged up and down the court, as Westbrook continued to shoot until his heart was content. Harmony, however, was seen and heard in the locker room following the victory.

•Durant on the team’s finish: “That’s winning time, fourth quarter.”

•Brooks on KD finishing strong after a slow if not sluggish start: “That’s what stars can do. They can have an average game, and then in the last four or five minutes they can win the game. And I thought that’s what he did tonight. That’s what makes him a special player.”

•Westbrook finished 7-for-22 from the field. But he had 16 points and 12 assists against only two turnovers. The line looked great aside from the shooting. But it wasn’t the greatest performance. Far from it. Yet Brooks praised Westbrook for his all-around game. “I thought he had just an all-around great game,” Brooks said. “He didn’t shoot the ball well. But what Russell does is he plays hard; he fights through screens. He was really good defensively. He set a good screen to (allow) Kevin to get open on the big 2…I thought he had one of his best games.”

While KD was playing possum, or whatever he’s calling it, Serge Ibaka kept the Thunder in this one. He scored 11 of his 21 points in the opening quarter and looked great both in the pick-and-pop with Westbrook and crashing the boards for putbacks.

•Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha scored 16 of the Thunder’s first 18 points. Let’s just say it wasn’t by design.

- Thunder 97, Bulls 91, by Darnell Mayberry,, November 9, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Back seat?

Airbrushed image

Education as a crutch

Winner-take-all politics?

Man of the world

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)

上一篇 : Back seat?
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