The English language can be tricky enough as it is. Things get even more confusing when you start throwing in regional differences. I’m still not up to speed on Australian slang, for example. And while I am Canadian, my professional life has me writing primarily for an American audience, so I have to be mindful with my spelling too. You can’t trust those red squiggly lines in your web browser or word processor to be correct all the time!
It’s not just about differences between countries either. As you make your way across the United States, you’ll find that the exact same beverage can be called pop, soda, soda pop, a soft drink, or “Coke,” even if the person isn’t referring specifically to the cola. But what about vermin and varmint? Is there really any difference between the two words.
The connotation for either term steers us toward small mammals, but “vermin” and “varmint” can just as easily be used for other types of creatures too. Some people may disagree and referring to certain animals this way may sound odd. It’s still not technically incorrect. If you have a cockroach infestation, you could call them vermin.
The main thing is that these terms typically refer to wild animals that you do not desire, and the implication is that you want to exterminate them. Or, at the very least, relocate them so they are no longer a bother. You see these creatures as pests that need to be removed.
So, long story short, is there a difference?
The original word was “vermin” and it was derived from the Latin word for worm (vermis). The term was originally used only to refer to insect larvae that would infest crops and food. That’s why we view vermin as pests that spread disease and destroy crops or livestock. The term is context-sensitive, though, because what may be a pest to one person may be perceived as cute by another.
The word “varmint” (as well as the variation “varmit”) is most commonly associated with the eastern and southeastern parts of the United States, particularly through the Appalachians. As mentioned, “vermin” typically (but not always) refers to smaller animals. “Varmint,” on the other hand, includes larger predators that are problematic to farmers, like feral dogs, weasels and coyotes.
And opossums too, which are different from possums. The former are the more weasel-like, “angry” creatures shown in the picture above and they’re found in the United States. Possums look more like their fellow Australian marsupials, like the wallaby. Confusingly, the idiom “playing possum” really references the American opossum. Go figure.
For my part, I think it was Yosemite Sam who first introduced me to the word “varmint” and I’ve associated the term with that stereotypical character ever since.