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Up a gum tree

Posted by TheFallen on June 16, 2003

In Reply to: Possum up a gum tree posted by James Briggs on June 14, 2003

See also - the meaning and origin of the saying 'Up a gum tree'.

: : : What is the origin of the saying stuck up a gum tree? I don't think that it is anything to do with trees and sap and animals getting stuck to the sticky sap. I think that it is something to do with the river Gomti in India and an English garisson being sieged

: : The closest saying I can find is "like a possum up a gum tree," in Eric Partridge, "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British." Mr. Partridge says this:

: : "An Australian catchphrase applicable to a person exceptionally, or completely, happy: C20. . . . Clearly rural in origin, opossums being arboreal marsupials; and a gum tree being a eucalypt; and gum tree[,] this engaging creature's natural habitat."

: My understanding of the phrase is that 'He's up a gum [email protected] implies that someone is at a loss, in a bit of difficulty or to be virtually stuck on some project or other. The origin is suggested that the saying may be an allusion to the gum tree being a refuge for the opossum, an animal which feigns death by lying still and is therefore apparently stuck up the tree.

My understanding matches James's - to be "up a gum tree" means having no viable courses of action left, to be stumped or, to use a similar expression "to be up the creek without a paddle".

The expression is certainly known in the UK, though by now it's definitely old-fashioned, being the sort of thing my mother would say. However, the phrase's point of origin is clouded, with various sources claiming either the USA or Australia, both of which have gum trees. Only the USA has possums though, which oddly enough is the only marsupial family living outside Australia/New Guinea. So, if the full expression is "like a possum up a gum tree", then the US claim looks to be the most secure.

However, there is an earlier expression now fallen into disuse that is simply "up a tree", which means exactly the same thing - having nowhere to run - and which is clearly taken from the world of hunting. It may be that the "gum" part was added later as an intensifier to the image because being up a tree would be bad enough, but being up a gum tree, with its gluey sap further hindering movement would be even worse.

See also - the meaning and origin of the saying 'Up a gum tree'.