Crocodile Tears: Meaning and Origin of this Common Saying Revealed

Crocodile eye
© iStock.com/Jeroen Mikkers

Written by Colby Maxwell

Published: September 29, 2022

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We’ve all heard the phrase “crocodile tears”, and if you are the parent of a toddler, you’ve likely used it pretty recently! It’s a great way to describe insincerity, but where does it actually originate from? Even more, do crocodiles even have the capability to cry? Let’s learn all about crocodile tears and the origin of this common saying.

What does it mean to have “crocodile tears”?

Crocodile Tears: Meaning & Origin of this Common Saying Revealed

A person crying crocodile tears isn’t actually upset, but is using the tears to other ends.

©Mari Swanepoel/Shutterstock.com

Crocodile tears is an expression that usually means someone is being insincere. Crying crocodile tears means that that person isn’t actually sad or feeling the emotion they are displaying, but are trying to use the emotion to other ends.

Recent usage of this expression showed up in the Wall Street Journal, referencing a few companies that publically expressed sorrow, despite having more nefarious purposes.

Some of the nation’s biggest and most powerful companies exploited an unprecedented human crisis to grow bigger and more powerful, making sure to shed crocodile tears for the losers.

WSJ

Parents of toddlers know that crocodile tears are a tool used by nearly every 2 to 5-year-old on the planet! When they don’t get their way, the crocodile tears are sure to flow. Even with the usage of the expression being so commonplace, most people have no idea how the phrase came to be. Let’s take a look at its strange history.

Where did the expression originally come from?

Crocodile Tears: Meaning & Origin of this Common Saying Revealed

The expression was commonly used in Latin writings and was translated into English by the 14th century.

©Bob Stilwell/Shutterstock.com

Like many words and phrases, the exact history isn’t clear-cut. Still, there are some things that history can tell us. The origins can be split into two categories: biological and linguistic.

Biological origin

The biological aspect of the phrase makes a lot of sense. When crocodiles have been out of water for an extended period of time, they have a biological mechanism that triggers tear ducts to produce tears. This is done to prevent their eyes from drying out, especially while on land. This lubrication helps them to blink and see when they aren’t in water. Additionally (and maybe more importantly), there is some research that shows that these tear ducts may be activated when the crocodiles are feeding. If a group of people that just watched their friend just get snapped up by a croc saw this, it makes sense they would consider the crocodile to be crying! In the same way that humans may cry when they have a big yawn or stretch, crocodiles may cry when they are feeding.

Linguistic spread

The first widespread English usage of the phrase likely began around the 14th century during the Middle Ages. The people of the day believed that crocodiles who killed and ate humans would actually weep for their victims, despite continuing on with their “meal” anyways. Still, despite becoming a popular English phrase in the 14th century, it may have roots that predate even that. Some reports have Plutarch, the ancient philosopher and writer from the first century AD, using the phrase in his writings. Plutarch spoke Latin, however, and the phrase wasn’t translated into English until much later.

The first time that the phrase crocodile tears was widely used in English was around the 14th century when Sir John Mandeville used it in his storybook.

In that country and by all Inde be great plenty of cockodrills, that is a manner of a long serpent, as I have said before. And in the night they dwell in the water, and on the day upon the land, in rocks and in caves. And they eat no meat in all the winter, but they lie as in a dream, as do the serpents. These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.

Archive

Once the phrase was translated and used in English writing, it was further used and given a Christian spin by the theologian Photios who used it to talk about true repentance.

Modern use

Crocodile Tears: Meaning & Origin of this Common Saying Revealed

The phrase has shown up in Shakespeare’s plays and has become a common idiom across the English-speaking world today.

©Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock.com

From its Latin roots to English translation, crocodile tears was further popularized by Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare references crocodile tears in Othello, during Act 4.

If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.

Othello

Further still, Shakespeare uses the phrase in Henry VI, Antony and Cleopatra, and more. At the same time, other playwrights began using the term to represent false intentions and sorrow. Soon, it became a regularly used phrase that was passed down until modern times.

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About the Author

Colby is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering outdoors, unique animal stories, and science news. Colby has been writing about science news and animals for five years and holds a bachelor's degree from SEU. A resident of NYC, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone about what birds he saw at his local birdfeeder.

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