What is the most universal Spanish word to describe a possum? What regional variations exist? Does the translation refer specifically to the same animal as the English word, or does it cover a larger variety of animals?
In English, all members of the Order/Family Didelphimorphia/Didelphidae are called opossums, and this matches with the general Spanish use of zarigüeya.
But in Ecuadorian Spanish, for example, 16 of the 21 native species of opossum have a common name containing raposa, and zarigüeya is specific to the 2 named species of the Genus Didelphis (this includes the common opossum - el zarigüeya común, which is the only species also native to North America).
Different countries/regions of Central America have their own specific terms for opossums, which may be a general term or a word for certain species which are native to that area:
- North America opossum
- Southern North America possum
- Spain (general) zarigüeya
- Texas tacuaches, tlacuaches
- Latin America (general) zorra mochilera1
- México tlacuache
- Yucatán zorro, zorra
- Central America (general) tlacuache, clacuache, tacuache, tacuacín3
- Costa Rica zorro1, zorro pelón1, zorra, tacuacín
- Guatemala tacuacín
- El Salvador tlacuache, tacuazín, guasalo
- Honduras tlacuache, tacuacín/tacuazín, guasalo
- Nicaragua zorro [de] cola pelada1, tacuacín, cuila 2 (Masaya)
- Panamá tacuacín, zorro, zorra
- Ecuador raposa1, zorro
- Colombia fara, chucha, zarigüeya, runcho, raposa, zorrochuchos4
- Venezuela faro, churro, rabipelado, quengue, zorro
- Perú muca, huanchaco, canchaluco
- Bolivia carachupas
- Paraguay comadreja, mykurẽ (guarani)
- Uruguay comadreja1, overa
- Argentina comadreja1, overa
- México tlacuache
Raposa means fox in Galicia (zorro in most other regions of Spain), but in Ecuador it is the common name for most species of opossum.
This polysemy occurred in English terms for newly discovered animals in the Americas too. For example, the American Robin is actually a type of thrush, the American Buffalo is a type of bison, and the Pronghorn Antelope is more closely related to giraffes.
Note that comadreja means weasel in Spain, similar to the co-opting of the terms zorro and raposa.
Debería revisarse, pues cuilo en Costa Rica es cuyo Cavia porcellus o Cavia cobaya.
From Nahuatl tlacuatzin
Specifically the largest species
Technically, "possum" refers to species of the suborder Phalangeriformes, distributed in Australia. However, "opossums" are also commonly called possums (in America).
So, "Falangero" is correct for "possum", and it's derived from the latin name of the suborder they belong (Phalangeriformes). Anyway, I guess possums are not quite common animals. For "opossum" the spanish word is "zarigüeya". "Zarigüeyas" are common and well known animals in America (only american marsupials). So, it depends on what animal are you really referring to.
Anyway, I think "posum" is totally understandable, and if you check in spanish wikipedia for "posum", you get the correct answer. I just ask to a couple of friends (spanish native speakers too) about the meaning of "Los falangeros viven en Australia" y "Los posums viven en australia". Falangeros in the first sentence isn't uniquely associated with an animal, but posum is. I also think in some contexts, "falangero" could be easily interpreted as "thief" rather than an unknown animal, for people ignoring the real meaning of the word. Again, it's not a common animal.
I used to work with a Mexican chef who called me 'tlacuache.' I didn't know what it meant and he didn't know how to say it in English. "Rata grande" was as close as I got. Further research revealed little until I asked a waitress at Hooters. "Tlacuache is a possum" she thought it was hilarious and gave me some Spanish words to throw back at the chef next time.
El principal nombre común que reciben los didelfimorfos es el de zarigüeyas; además, son conocidos en El Salvador como tacuazines, en Guatemala como tacuacines, en México como tlacuaches o tacuaches, en Ecuador como guanchacas, en Honduras como guasalos, en el Perú como mucas o canchalucos, en Bolivia como carachupas, en Colombia como faras, chuchas, runchos o raposas, en Venezuela como rabipelados o faros, en Costa Rica, Panamá y algunas partes de México (como Yucatán) como “zorros”, y en Uruguay y Argentina como “comadrejas” overas, aunque estos dos últimos términos son equívocos, ya que comparten el nombre con mamíferos placentarios completamente diferentes.