It’s not uncommon to see small children weeping despondently, hearts seemingly broken, only for their parents to tell anyone standing nearby, “Oh, don’t worry; they’re fine. They’re just crying crocodile tears because I said they couldn’t have ice cream before dinner.” Cut to mere minutes later, the tears have stopped, and the child is playing happily.
The term “crocodile tears” has been part of the English language for several centuries—but have you ever wondered precisely what crocodile tears are? Or where the phrase comes from? Heck, have you ever wondered whether or not crocodiles even cry? It turns out there’s a lot more to this vivid turn of phrase than you might think.
What it Means to Cry Crocodile Tears
The phrase “crocodile tears” is an idiomatic expression denoting insincere sorrow. To cry crocodile tears is to put on a show of grief or sadness when in truth, you’re not grieving or sad at all. The saying comes from an old belief that crocodiles cry while eating: They were said to weep for their prey even while they devoured them, thus presenting a duplicitous dichotomy.
Crocodile tears can be literal tears; indeed, many dictionary definitions of the term base themselves around actual weeping. The Cambridge Dictionary, for example, describes them as “tears that you cry when you are not really sad or sorry”; meanwhile, Merriam-Webster keeps their own definition short and concise, calling them merely “false or affected tears.”
However, to say that someone is “crying crocodile tears” doesn’t mean that they necessarily do need to be full-on sobbing. As linguistically-minded websites the Phrase Finder and World Wide Worlds both note, the modern understanding of the phrase is a bit more expansive. Any false expression of sorrow or a “hypocritical show of emotion” can be described as an example of crocodile tears, whether or not there are actual tears involved.
Motivation matters when separating crocodile tears from actual tears; typically, people who cry crocodile tears do so as a manipulation tactic. But it’s not always a fail-safe tactic. Research has found that some people—especially those displaying high levels of traits associated with psychopathy or sociopathy–-can’t distinguish genuine tears from crocodile tears and may even consider all tears to be crocodile tears. Furthermore, behavioral cues can tip off observers as to when someone is crying crocodile tears—and as a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in February 2020 found, if someone is determined to be crying crocodile tears, rather than sincere tears, they’re much more likely to be perceived negatively by others, which can result in ostracization.
A Brief History of Weeping Crocodiles
It’s not entirely clear when the phrase “crocodile tears” entered the lexicon, but it is generally accepted that the idea dates back to antiquity.
As Matthew Roby notes in the essay “Eating People and Feeling Sorry,” published in the 2019 book Darkness, Depression, and Descent in Anglo-Saxon England, one of the earliest references to the concept of crocodile tears appears in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plutarch, where they are “interpreted… as betraying insincere grief.”
In the ninth century C.E., Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople, referenced the idea in his Biblioteca as well. He put forth the explanation that crocodiles weep when eating not out of grief or guilt, but out of disappointment that their prey’s heads don’t have enough meat on them to make them a good meal. Furthermore, as James Grout remarks at his University of Chicago-hosted resource Encyclopaedia Romana, many medieval bestiaries describe the crocodile—or “cocodrillus,” as it’s sometimes called—as being “said to weep after eating a man.”
However, it’s the 14th-century volume The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which is usually credited with bringing widespread popularity to the concept of crocodile tears. In Chapter XXXI, Mandeville writes of an island he visits replete with “great plenty of cockodrills”—“cockodrills” being crocodiles—who “dwell in the water” at night, “upon the land” during the day, hibernate during the winter, and, notably, “slay men,” whom they then “eat… weeping.”
It’s perhaps worth noting that while The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is real, “Sir John Mandeville” probably wasn’t; the true identity of the work’s writer remains unknown. What’s more, he likely didn’t actually travel to all the places he claimed but instead compiled his manuscript from encyclopedias, travelogues, and other existing work readily available at the time. Even so, though, the English translation of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which was initially written in French, became what’s mostly believed to be the source by which the idea of crocodile tears spread to English-speaking countries. Indeed, crocodile tears began appearing in several Renaissance works following the publication of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville in English, including Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare’s Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Henry VI, Part 2.
The Science of Crocodile Tears
Here’s the funny thing: Crocodiles really do cry when they eat. They just don’t do it as any sort of emotional response to their meal.
In 2006, researchers working out of the University of Florida conducted a study aimed at getting to the bottom of whether there was any science to back up the anecdotal and literary references to crocodiles crying while they eat. For the study, they recorded footage of seven crocodiles covering three different varieties while they fed on dry land—and when they reviewed the footage, they found that five of the seven crocodiles did, in fact, tear up while they ate. They published their observations in an article in the journal BioScience in 2007.
The researchers are still working on figuring out exactly why the crocodiles cry when they eat, but they do know that it’s due to physiological reasons. Researcher Kent Vliet told ScienceDirect that he believes it to be related to the “hissing and huffing” crocodiles do when they feed. This “hissing and huffing” forces air through the crocodiles’ sinuses, which in turn drives tears up their lacrimal ducts and into their eyes.
Crocodiles can cry at other times than feeding time, as well. They produce tears when they’ve been out of the water for an extended period to keep their eyes moist—and sometimes, those tears spill over, giving the impression that the crocodile is crying.
But remember: No matter the details, crocodiles don’t cry out of remorse. If you’re standing close enough to a crocodile to see its tears, you might want to get out of there—and quickly!