Skrike, lachryme, and water-cart: the language of crying
Crying is one of the first things that any of us do in our lives. It tends to happen again at the most important moments in life – whether as a sign of happiness or sadness – and some of us find it’s an involuntary reaction to anything from pieces of music to absorbing stories. Crying predates language, so it’s interesting to see how language has responded to that most ubiquitous of actions… (Cry, of course, has many different senses – but we will restrict ourselves to words connected with tears and weeping.)
Unsurprisingly, there have been many different words for crying over the centuries, including some that survive as regionalisms. To list a few, there are skrike (as both a noun and verb) which is probably of Scandinavian origin and is still used in the North of England; keen, from the Irish caoin-im (‘I wail’), and relating to the keen (‘an Irish funeral song accompanied with wailing in lamentation for the dead’), and the verb blart (possibly a variant of bleat, and used of a child’s crying). Wail is probably from the Old Norse veila, a derivative of the interjection vei meaning ‘woe’.
Other synonyms for cry and weep from the Historical Thesaurus of the OED include the verbs greet, grote, yarm, weine, yammer, water, lerm, reme, plaint, and water-cart. The Latin lacrimare, ‘to weep’ (compare the adjective lachrymose, ‘tearful or given to weeping’) is the root for lachrymate and lacrimate (now chiefly in scientific use), lachryme, delacrimate, elacrymate, and collachrymate (‘to weep together with; to commiserate’).
Many terms for crying are very evocative, whether they are imitative or figurative (for the latter, burst into tears is a strikingly violent image, although softened by repetition). In the imitative camp is boohoo, which is so connected with the sound of crying that it has also become a sarcastic expression of contempt, yet in one of the earliest known examples of boohoo as an interjection, from 1528, it is intended to be imitative of laughter rather than weeping. The verb boohoo (to weep noisily) did not follow for some centuries, and was also used as a synonym for ‘bellow’.
Ululate and ullagone are also both ultimately of imitative origin, although with different etymological roots. Ululate is from the Latin ululare, ‘to howl, shriek’ (a nice, if not very flattering, comparison can be made with ulula, ‘screech-owl’), while ullagone is from Irish Gaelic olagón.
Another onomatopoeic word is the verb sob (compare West Frisian sobje and Dutch dialect sabben, ‘to suck’), which is found as early as the 11th century, followed in the 14th century by the equivalent noun (Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde provides the OED’s current earliest evidence). Many compound words have also developed from sob, often referencing sentimental appeals to the emotions. These include sob-act, sob-reporter, sob-singer, sob squad, and, perhaps most seen today, sob story (‘a story or explanation intended to make someone feel sympathy for the person relating it’). It is also possible to be a sob sister; that is, a female journalist who writes sentimental articles or answers readers’ problems – in a similar role to that other female relative, the agony aunt. Less commonly, one can be a sob brother; an American colloquialism to denote a sentimental man.
Crying appears in a few English idioms, although there are more that are concerned with cry meaning ‘a loud excited utterance of words’ (or the equivalent verb), such as a far cry, cry for the moon, cry stinking fish, and much cry and little wool (the proverbial outcome of shearing hogs; hence, much noise or fuss with small results). Here are a few that do relate to the lachrymal sort of crying…
It’s no use crying over spilt milk
This expression means that there is no point in regretting something which has already happened and cannot be changed or reversed. It is found as early as the mid-17th century, in the form ‘No weeping for shed milk’.
Tears or expressions of sorrow that are insincere have been known as crocodile tears since the mid-16th century, and they are said to be so named from a belief that crocodiles wept while luring or devouring their prey.
If it is said that somebody weeps millstones or that their eyes drop millstones, then the implication is that they are hard-hearted and unlikely to weep sincerely. Shakespeare uses the image in Richard III: “Your eyes drop millstones, when fools’ eyes drop tears”.