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Why do we call false sentiment ‘crocodile tears’? Can crocodiles really cry?

To shed crocodile tears is to put on an insincere act of being sad. The expression is very old, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century. An account of the life of Edmund Grindal, the sixteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, quotes him as saying, ‘I begin to fear, lest his humility . . . be a counterfeit humility, and his tears crocodile tears.’ It stems from the ancient belief that crocodiles, in order to lure their prey, would weep. The unsuspecting prey would come close, only to be caught and rapidly devoured, again with a show of tears. The crocodile’s reputation for weeping is recorded as early as 1400, as in this quotation from the Oxford English Dictionary from a travel narrative: ‘In that contre . . . ben gret plentee of Cokadrilles . . . Theise Serpentes slen men, and thei eten hem wepynge’ (roughly translated as ‘In that country . . . are plenty of crocodiles. These serpents slay men, and then eat them weeping’).

But can a crocodile really weep? The experts say yes: they have tear glands just like most other animals. And zoologists have recorded alligators, close relatives of crocodiles, shedding tears while they’re eating. This parallel may be significant—rather than being an emotional response, the shedding of tears probably happens because of the way crocodiles and alligators eat: when eating their prey they will often huff and hiss as they blow out air, and their tear glands may empty at the same time. The idea of crocodile tears being false was used both in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and in Shakespeare’s Othello. They provide just two of the many allusions in literature that have cemented the idiom in the language.

Incidentally, the word ‘crocodile’ means, literally, ‘worm of the stones’. It is from Greek, and is a reference to the croc’s habit of basking in the sun on the shingly banks of a river.

 

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent