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I was wondering how one would translate the word "opossum" into Latin.

It derives from Native American names for opossum meaning variably "white dog" and "white animal," so it could be translated literally into Latin. Of course, the word "opossum" itself could just be kept, and take the construction of a 2nd declension neuter noun.

Mostly just want to field some opinions. Thanks!

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  • Actually all animals have official zoological names, in this case Didelphis virginiana.
    – fdb
    Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 20:11
  • Are you looking for something like a word that a Roman would have used for the animal? Scientific and Latin names are two different things, and it could be worth clarifying what you're after. Good colloquial alternatives to a scientific name is an interesting thing to think about.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 19:52
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    I always thought that the plural of opossum should be opossumus.
    – brianpck
    Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 3:05

2 Answers 2

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If you are looking for something to call these animals colloquially, I would go with the simple neuter opossum. No other name will be easy to understand, and I value functional communication above sticking with classical words. To in no way help me drive home this argument, here is a hendecasyllabic verse:

O, possum hoc animal vocare opossum.
Oh, I can call this animal an opossum.

Neuters are rare but not unheard of as names of animals. In this case I would not try to modify the name to opossus or anything, because the well known English name can be so easily treated as a Latin word as is.

The scientific name is not the same as a Latin name, and just like nobody would call a dog canis lupus in daily life, neither would anyone call an opossum Didelphis virginiana (the only species in the US) or didelphida (the name of the family is Didelphidae).

Because opossums are small compared to dogs, I would modify the name "white dog" to "little white dog", canicula alba. That's pretty heavy for repeated use, so after introduction you could go with canicula. But if there is any risk of confusion, the word opossum is the safest bet, albeit not previously a Latin word to my knowledge.

As usual, the best translation depends on context. If you want to mention the animal in a casual conversation in Latin, go with opossum. If you need scientific taxonomy and its precision, go with the appropriate scientific name. If you are about to enter a long discussion about the animal, use any word you like but be sure to introduce and justify your choice to your audience.

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  • It's rare to borrow a noun from a completely different language family that just happens to fit a standard native form for nouns. I say we take it as-is! opossum, opossī (n.) But wait…neuter gender for an animal? Don't all animals in Latin have masculine, feminine, or common gender—never neuter? (This question doesn't quite answer.) A quick search finds non-neuter gender even in mūlus, mūla, and hinnus.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 21:44
  • Oh no, another decision: opossum, ōpossum, opōssum, or ōpōssum? What precedents relate to this?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 21:45
  • @BenKovitz There's the word animal itself, but I can't think of other neuter animal names. Nevertheless, the word opossum is so convenient that it practically forces neuter; changing to opossus or something feels forced. Vowel quantities can be decided based on other languages as Latin doesn't restrict it. I thought of both Os as short as they are in all languages I know. (My scansion breaks down if the first one is long!)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 8:30
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I don't know of a single completely obvious choice, so this is just my thoughts on some possibilities. The order here is just to make this answer less similar to the existing answers.

"Sariga" (or similar: sarigua, sairguea)

I wouldn't go so far as recommending it, but I wanted to mention that another stem used in a few Romance languages' words for opossum is sarig-, as in French sarigue and Italian sariga. (But opossum is also used, and appears to be more common than sariga in Italian.)

The etymology is said to be from Tupi, but the details of what the original Tupi form sounded like and meant are fairly unclear to me. Some Romance forms have [w] (Spanish zarigüeya). Possible Latinized forms could be sarīga, sarīgua, sarīguēa. (I'd go with long ī since the Italian word seems to have penultimate stress.)

Sarigua seems to have had some use as an alternative scientific name at one point (A PRELIMINARY STUDY OF THE NORTH AMERICAN OPOSSUMS OF THE GENUS DIDELPHIS, page 163).

The one advantage I can see is that sarīga or similar would make for a fairly normal-looking feminine noun of the first declension, like formīca, formīcae "ant" or aquila, aquilae "eagle".

A couple of major disadvantages:

  • Little if any use in Latin.

    I found 1 citation of the form "sariguea":

    Est memorabile animal Sariguea in nouo orbe, et in India Orientali adinuentum: est catti, seu felis magnitudine; posteriores, ac priores pedes pellicula interposita coniunguntur, velut anseribus in pedibus est pellis, aut qualis est vespertilionibus ...

    (Dies Caniculares, Hoc est Colloquia tria et viginti physica, etc)

  • It's probably recognizable to much fewer people than opossum.

Opossum

The recognizability is the big attraction of this choice, I think.

As Ben Kovitz mentioned in a comment, it is fairly odd for the name of an animal to belong to the neuter gender in Latin. But as a nominative singular form, opossum is really not compatible with any Latin declension pattern other than second-declension neuter.

"Opossum" is invariable for number in Italian, so treating it as invariable for case and number could be another option to consider. I have the impression that many modern Latin enthusiasts try whenever possible to avoid loaning names as invariable nouns, but it isn't an unheard of strategy historically.

Didelphis (or "didelphys"?)

While not as likely I think as opossum to be immediately recognizable, didelphis is probably fairly easy for a reader to recognize after a little research because of the use of Didelphis as a scientific name. A few languages also seem to have a common noun based on the scientific name: Polish dydelf and the constructed language Esperanto's didelfo.

One thing that makes me a little hesistant to use this, aside from its apparent artificiality as a name, is that it's not that obvious how it ought to be declined.

  • Nouns ending in -is can have various sorts of stems; native Latin words tend to be third-declension "mixed" i-stems while words borrowed from Greek are often -id- stems. Concretely, this means that the accusative (which is what you would use in the context of a sentence like "Heri [opposum] vidi") would not be didelphis, but would probably be didelphem or didelphidem. (Technically, a "pure" i-stem form didelphim would also be possible, although this was a fairly rare declension pattern.)

  • Since the names of biological genera are rarely declined, I can't actually tell whether there is an established consensus about the stem of Didelphis. Here is one source that uses "Spiroptera Didelphidis virginianae" and another that uses "Spiroptera Didelphis virginianae".

  • Unfortunately, I can't use etymology as a guide because I can't find out whether the -is termination of Didelphis is anything more than an arbitrary formation. Wiktionary, in saying that it is from "Ancient Greek δι- (di-, “two”) + δελφύς (delphús, “womb”)", seems to imply that it could be viewed as a variant spelling for Didelphys, but the inflection of that in Latin wouldn't be much simpler, since there were varying degrees of Latinization of words ending in -ys (e.g. the accusative of a word didelphys in Latin might be didelphyn instead of didelphym).

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