Word Matters Podcast

Possums, Opossums, and Staycations

Word Matters, Episode 57

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This week we finally address it: the two spellings of everyone's favorite North American marsupial.

Plus, we do a deep dive on 'staycation' and various other leisure-related portmanteaus!

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: There is only one marsupial found in North America north of Mexico.

Peter Sokolowski: We often think that there's a word for everything.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, on staycations and North America's marsupials. I'm Emily Brewster. And Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

At last, you've finished your last email. You've set your out-of-office reply. And you're ready to take some well-deserved time away from your inbox. And what better place to jet off to than your couch? Here's Peter Sokolowski with a portmanteau for our times.

Peter Sokolowski: I think we often think that there's a word for everything. That's probably not true, but it's easy to feel like there's a word for everything. And it turns out they are often words that are pairings in which one of the words is much more frequently used than its parallel pair, or its opposite. One example I can think of as the word ambidextrous. And ambidextrous means "having equal facility with both hands," but in the Latin ambi- means "both" and dexter means "right."

Emily Brewster: So, it's both your right hand...

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And the implication being most people were right-handed so that you have the facility of your right hand. There's the word ambisinistrous. It means "on the left side." Ambisinister means "left-handed" or "clumsy in the use of both hands." So, if ambidextrous means you have skill or skillful use of both hands, ambisinistrous means you're clumsy with both hands. It's funny that etymologically that means left and dextrous means right.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: So, it's a very rare word. It's a word that's not in a Merriam-Webster dictionary anymore. It was in our Second Unabridged Dictionary, the edition of 1934, which was a very big, comprehensive encyclopedic dictionary that had lots of words that are very rare, including this one. These words are mirror images of each other. And that's fascinating all by itself. And in that sense, maybe there is a word for everything. But one other pair like this is the word hibernate, which I think is commonly understood to mean resting for the winter, for the period of the winter, usually used for bears.

Emily Brewster: So, it's a word that children know, right?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Young children know the word hibernate, because they learn about animals going into hibernation during winter.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. During the winter. And also it's a word that we use figuratively. I was hibernating last month. I didn't go out. I didn't socialize. It's a word that has a rich life, but there is a parallel mirror term to hibernate, which is estivate, and it's the summer equivalent to the word hibernate. So, instead of resting through the winter with lower metabolism the way animals do, there is also estivate.

Some animals estivate and they sleep through the warmer months. Now that is also a word that has a figurative life, because if you estivate on Nantucket, for example, that might just simply mean that you're spending the summer there, that you are summering there. We do have the verb winter and summer. So, he wintered in the Rockies and he summered on the coast. And summer seems like a fancy word, but estivate is a great way to Latinize it and make it seem even more formal, or more funny.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, no, estivate is definitely a formal sounding word, right?

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: It makes me think about the episode we did a few episodes back where we were talking about science terms that have settled into a non-technical use. And hibernate has definitely done that. And estivate has some use, but it's not in common use.

Peter Sokolowski: No. You'd have to be a word nerd already to use it. And it comes from the Latin word meaning "summer" basically.

Emily Brewster: Interesting. I think using estivate is showing off a little bit.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, totally. And that's what a lot of these transparently Latin words are.

Ammon Shea: There is a similar one related to hibernate, which is parhiemate, which we don't define, but the OED has. And the only place I've seen it is in Henry Cockeram's dictionary of 1623 and it's defined as "to winter at a place." So, it's the winter sense of estivate, because it doesn't necessarily mean sleep at a place.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh!

Emily Brewster: Oh!

Ammon Shea: And he has a synonym, which is hiemate, H-I-E-M-A-T-E, which is related to hiemo, "wintry" or "snowing."

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: And hiemate has a little more use throughout the 19th and 18th century. But I think it does have more of a connotation of spending time at a place rather than just sleeping through the season.

Emily Brewster: Right, right, right. When you're hibernating, or estivating, as a biological creature, you're not really paying much attention to what's going on.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: Now these terms, of course, make me think about some other terms for spending the summer months. The word staycation-

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Emily Brewster: ... is a term that's been thrown around a lot lately. And during the time of COVID-19, it hasn't developed a new meaning, but it is more often used in a slightly different way than it was traditionally, or before COVID-19. Staycation, we define this word as "a vacation spent at home or nearby." That was the definition before COVID-19, but it's really during COVID-19 that people were doing their staycations at home and not necessarily because they wanted to.

Peter Sokolowski: But isn't there a slight variant, or even drift, of this term meaning not leaving the country because travel is difficult or illegal. And I think that is a way that staycation is being used now. Maybe this is more in Britain, but I seem to have seen this on Twitter that people are saying, "That's not what staycation means." You're already getting a little bit of an argument, which means there's something new about this usage.

Emily Brewster: Our definition actually covers that sense, because it says a vacation spent at home or nearby.

Peter Sokolowski: Or nearby. Yeah, yeah.

Emily Brewster: Although I guess nearby, it gives you wiggle room there, but sure.

Peter Sokolowski: That nuance is a little bit new to me.

Ammon Shea: It does seem that the original meaning of staycation was domestic as in terms of the domus, the house, and is expanded now to domestic in terms of domestic travel to country.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Now, Ammon, you're the dating specialist among us. And do you know when staycation was entered in our dictionary? We entered it with a 2005 date.

Ammon Shea: I think it's 1944 is the current earliest known use of staycation.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, do you know what it is?

Ammon Shea: Yes. There is a date from the Cincinnati Enquirer from the 18th of July, 1944, in which there were "four red, white, and blue reminders for July, the second of which is take a staycation instead of a vacation, though they spell it va-cation this year. Trains and buses are crowded. Gasoline and tires must still be conserved." So, that's interesting. It was found in the context of war time surplus.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: Not surplus. War time...

Peter Sokolowski: Privations.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: They were trying to not use raw materials.

Emily Brewster: Now I think it's really interesting that this list of red, white, and blue reminders, it wasn't in an editorial. It was part of an ad for Felson Brau Supreme Beer. Once I learned that, it suddenly made sense to me that staycation was brought to us by marketing people, right? Seems like, "Oh, okay."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. So, conserve gasoline, not beer.

Ammon Shea: If you go back and you look at World War II publications, whether it's Ladies' Home Journal or Saturday Evening Post, if you look at advertisements, it was not at all uncommon to see ads saying, "Please don't buy our product. The military needs it.' Kind of this self abnegating tone. Or one of my unfortunate favorites was one where there were jello gelatin ads of all these things that you could make for dinner by basically adding scraps of rationed food to gelatin. Like you take the leftover things of your ham, you take the leftover greens, or whatever, even the ham hocks, and you throw it together in a gelatin mold with our branded gelatin and voila, you have an instant meal. And so you get a lot of these rationing advertisements during the Second World War and presumably during other wars. I think you're right. It's fascinating that this one led to the coining of a word.

Peter Sokolowski: That sounds terrible by the way.

Ammon Shea: Yes, it sounds really disgusting.

Emily Brewster: It really does. But you can see how it'd have a real presence on a plate.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, yeah.

Emily Brewster: The draw is clear. A more recent coinage, it's a sister to staycation, has not yet become fully established. There was a buzz about this word in like 2009. It may fade off into the oblivion and maybe I should not mention it, but I'm going to mention it anyway. And that word is bleisure, or you could pronounce it /BLEE-zhur//. B-L-E-I-S-U-R-E. So, it's a blend of business and leisure. When it was first used, it was being associated with the Great Recession.

And I think the earliest example that I had found of it in preliminary research was in 2007. There was a hotel press release referring to a bleisure trip, a business traveler who was tacking on leisure time after the business part of the trip had ended. So, your company flies you somewhere for a conference and you stay for a few more days on your own dime.

Peter Sokolowski: Is it also used for fashion? Bleisurewear?

Emily Brewster: Yes, yes.

Peter Sokolowski: Clothes you could wear to the office and then off to the beach.

Emily Brewster: I had forgotten about that. Yes. I really haven't looked at the recent usage, but I feel like this word has fallen off my radar. I have not been coming across it. I also have not been seeking it out.

Ammon Shea: It has a lot working against it.

Emily Brewster: Why do you say that?

Ammon Shea: Well, the same way that we always like to say that words with K in them are funny. Words that begin with blah are not immediately striking. That's my first guess. It would be that the blah is really working against it.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. There's another aspect of its pronunciation that always sticks out to me. And that was when I say it, I feel like I have to say bleisure and bleisure. In British English, they pronounce L-E-I-S-U-R-E as leisure. And in US English, we pronounce it as leisure. And bleisure sounds like something that one might enjoy. Bleisure really doesn't. Right? Bleisure sounds like I'm bleary-eyed, I'm miserable. I really want to be in my own bed. I don't know.

Ammon Shea: There's something unpleasant is happening.

Peter Sokolowski: And bleisure reminds, rhymes with pleasure.

Emily Brewster: Right. So, maybe the Brits can take bleisure and run with it. Who knows? Coronacation was a word that was coming up in summer of 2020.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right. Of course.

Emily Brewster: I don't know that I have heard it so much this summer. Coronacation being a cheap vacation that you take during the pandemic, or it also was being used to refer to the forced vacation of someone who has been laid off.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, right.

Emily Brewster: Right? You have to go on a coronacation, or coronacation being just for circumstances of not being able to do anything fun.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that's interesting about this though is that a lot of these sound absurd, right? And it's very tempting to think that some of the coinages that come up are unlikely to last or anything. What I love is that we get words that come from say the flu, like you've got a certain kind of flu. And the flu itself has this wonderfully improbable etymology. Flu obviously comes from influenza and influenza comes from the Italian word, which literally meant "influence," which comes from the Medieval Latin influentia, which was coming from the belief that epidemics were due to the influence of the stars.

So, we have the influence of the stars in Medieval Latin going to influence in Italian, going to influenza in the middle of the 18th century in the United States, going into like early 20th century flu. And the word has changed so much. At any stage, somebody could have said, "You know what? That variation is just not going to take. That's just totally ridiculous. No one's going to be saying that in five years." And yet it stuck around.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, here we are saying it still.

Peter Sokolowski: That's why they call it a living language. No one can predict the way it will grow, but if it doesn't grow, it dies. So, the word, like maybe bleisure, may not be uttered after this podcast and it will vanish from the language. But if a word is used frequently and by a lot of people, then it will grow. And that means it'll almost certainly change, the way we've already seen staycation evolve a little bit.

Emily Brewster: Well, and staycation is just so useful.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, right. So, there's something about it because that kind of mashup word sometimes bothers me. We used to have a feature on the website called the Open Dictionary, and I was the administrator for a lot of years for the Open Dictionary. There were submissions from the public of new words their nephew coined, or family terms, or whatever. That was the idea at least. What I discovered was everyone's idea of a new word was some form of portmanteau, was some form of mashup word.

And one advantage for success is that it's transparent, it's that you understand that word the moment it's uttered, even if you've never heard it before, like friendsgiving is another good example. And those are two words I'm sure they popped up in the Open Dictionary quite a lot. And a lot of those mashup words are fun.

Ammon Shea: Frenemy.

Peter Sokolowski: Frenemy is another good example. But a lot of them are fun, but won't catch on. These are both. They really did catch on.

Emily Brewster: A really interesting thing to me about those kinds of words, which are also referred to as blends, is that this is a relatively new way of coining. The earliest blends date back to the 16th century, but it really was not a very productive method for coining new words until the 19th century, which is when we got smog and brunch, motel. And now I talk to classes of kids sometimes and sometimes I'll ask the kids before I meet with them, "Everybody come up with a word and a definition for the word." And then we'll talk about how dictionaries are made and that sort of thing. And so often 90% of the words that the kids in the class come up with for their coinages are blends of some kind.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it makes sense. One of the things that you realize, okay, a word that we've never heard before in a combination of letters we've never heard before is really hard to retain. And I remember, it reminds me of, there was a Monty Python routine where they spoke what sounded like idiomatic English, but it was all perfect nonsense. It was absolute gibberish. But John Cleese has said that that was the hardest thing. They had to write it out and memorize it, because our brains are so hard wired to making sense, to starting a word and finishing it. They took the first part of many words and the second part of other words, put them together and it sounds like English, but it isn't. It turns out it's really hard for us, because language is so innate and so dependent upon meaning that it's really hard to create language that has no meaning. There's a long way around to saying that it makes sense to me that kids would grab at parts that carry meaning to make a new word.

Ammon Shea: There's a great song that was from 1972 by the Italian singer Adriano Celentano, which was a fake English song. The story that I heard, which may be somewhat apocryphal, was that he bet some people in Italy that he could make any song, as long as it sounded like it was in English, it didn't have to make sense. People would love it. And so he created an entire song of words that sound English, but then you pay closer attention and you just realize these are all gibberish. It sounds great. But when you start paying attention, you feel like the world is turned upside down, because you're so sure that this is an English song and then it just has nothing to do with our actual language.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with possum and opossum. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: In much of the United States, including pretty much everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains and along the west coast, there is a creature known by two names, opossum and possum. It's the same creature, so which name is right? I'll do my best to lay out the facts.

There is only one marsupial found in North America north of Mexico. It is a white, small creature with lots of little teeth and it has opposable thumbs on its hind feet. It's often found rummaging around near my recycling area at my house. Do you all know the creature I'm referring to?

Ammon Shea: It is the tick-eating creature.

Emily Brewster: Yes. It's fabulously good at eating ticks, but what do you call it? I'm trying to get you to say it.

Ammon Shea: I call it possum.

Emily Brewster: Okay.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, possum.

Ammon Shea: P-O-S-S-U-M.

Emily Brewster: You spell it that way?

Ammon Shea: Yeah. P-O-S-S-U-M.

Emily Brewster: What about you, Peter?

Peter Sokolowski: I think I'd spell it with an O, with a silent O, an initial silent O.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, I do not.

Emily Brewster: Are you categorically against the silent O?

Ammon Shea: I reject the O in all its works. I do in fact eschew the O.

Emily Brewster: Interesting. In technical context, the creature that we're talking about is more properly known as the Virginia opossum, Virginia possum. You can say either one. Scientists will necessarily spell it with the O, opossum, but that O is sometimes silent. So, you can spell it opossum and pronounce it possum. Both words date to the very early 17th century. And this is first currently known evidence.

The spelling with the O, our current earliest evidence is 1610. And without the O, it's 1613. They're basically the same age. The word comes from Virginia Algonquian. Algonquian is a family of languages spoken by indigenous people. It's a huge category of languages. It was spoken in what is current day Labrador, Canada, all the way south to the Carolinas, into the Great Plains. A very large family of languages. But in Virginia Algonquian, it meant basically "white animal." It's so weird that you can have a silent O on a word.

Peter Sokolowski: I can't think of another one. Not initial.

Emily Brewster: No. That you can spell it one way, you can spell it O-P-O-S-S-U-M and pronounce it possum. But that is the case. In general speech and writing, in non-scientific contexts, it's way more commonly written the way that Ammon says it and writes it. And always, if you're talking about the phrase like play possum, definitely it's not play opossum. You can't play opossum I guess. This story is confused even more by the fact that there is another marsupial mammal. There is a chiefly arboreal group of mammals in Australasia. So, in Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, that whole area. And those creatures are more technically referred to as phalangers, which makes me think of philanderer. It's spelled P-H-A-L-A-N-G-E-R.

Peter Sokolowski: Of fingers, having fingers? Is that what it means?

Emily Brewster: They've got those thumbs.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Well, thumbs is a big advantage, isn't it?

Emily Brewster: Opposable thumbs on your hind feet is amazing, right, if you think about it.

Ammon Shea: Sure.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, so a possum would beat a dog in tennis.

Emily Brewster: Do you think? Phalanger comes from the same source as phalanx, which means "battle line," "digital bone," or literally "a log."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, digital bone is a thing.

Emily Brewster: Digital bone? Interesting. Okay. But in the possum/opossum wars, there are some people who say that the Australian marsupials are the only ones that should be properly referred to as possums. And that the creature in our backyards is only properly called an opossum, except that you can pronounce it without the O.

Ammon Shea: That makes as much sense as anything else.

Emily Brewster: I know, right? It's such a strange thing.

Ammon Shea: Which is to say not at all.

Emily Brewster: As far as what Merriam-Webster actually does, we put the full definition for the American creature under O-P-O-S-S-U-M. And we put the full definition for the Australasian creatures under P-O-S-S-U-M, but both entries, of course, acknowledge that both words are used for all of those different creatures, creatures of both those regions. And we make it clear that you don't have to pronounce that O in O-P-O-S-S-U-M.

Ammon Shea: So, are there really no other words that we can think of that start with a silent O?

Emily Brewster: I really can't think of any.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, that's a strange one.

Peter Sokolowski: And how did it happen? This competition of these two terms in the 1610s, it could have easily been a transcription error. In other words, that somebody heard it a certain way and then wrote it down. And of course, there were no monolingual dictionaries at that time. There wasn't an easily accessible standard, but also this would have been a new term, so maybe they were transcribing the sound.

Emily Brewster: They certainly were. And the Virginia Algonquian word is actually lost. Etymologists have pieced together what that word looked like, but we don't actually have printed evidence of it.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Isn't that amazing? Even just 300, 400 years ago, a language that didn't have a written form is a language that we don't have evidence for. It shows you exactly how lexicography works. It's so dependent upon that written record.

Emily Brewster: Well, we do have evidence for the words that eventually led to this word that is unattested, but that we believe existed.

Peter Sokolowski: It's like the Proto-Indo-European terms-

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: ... that we assume had to exist in order for a development to come from it, but we don't have evidence of that term itself.

Emily Brewster: I feel like there must've been a conversation among a group of scientists at some point where somebody said, "Okay, you can still call it possum, but you have to spell it with the O." And they were all like, "Ugh, okay."

Ammon Shea: You think this was a compromise somewhere along the way?

Emily Brewster: They are known for their compromises, aren't they?

Ammon Shea: Sure. I like that theory. That makes more sense than most.

Peter Sokolowski: But the name marsupial comes from the word that means "pouch" in Latin. Marsupium means "pouch." So, maybe they put the O in the pouch.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all you general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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