We use the phrase “crocodile tears” to describe a display of false sorrow, but the saying actually derives from a medieval belief that crocodiles shed tears of sadness while they killed and consumed their prey.
The myth dates back to the 1300s and comes from a book called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Wildly popular upon its release, the book recounts a brave knight’s adventures during his supposed travels through Asia. Though factually inaccurate, Mandeville’s account of weeping reptiles later found its way into the works of Shakespeare, and “crocodile tears” became an idiom in the 1500s.
Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of York and of Canterbury was the first to use the phrase with the implication of insincerity, in 1563: “I begin to fear, lest his humility … be a counterfeit humility, and his tears crocodile tears.”
A later writer, Edward Topsell, provided a different explanation for the tears, saying, “There are not many brute beasts that can weep, but such is the nature of the crocodile that, to get a man within his danger, he will sob, sigh, and weep as though he were in extremity, but suddenly he destroyeth him.” That’s exactly the way I react to slicing carrots.
Shakespeare used the phrase a couple of times. A prominent example is in Othello, where Othello convinces himself that his wife is cheating on him.
Edmund Spenser also refers to the story in The Faerie Queene, writing of the “cruel crafty” creature “which, in false grief, hiding his harmful guile / Doth weep full sore, and sheddeth tender tears.”
While crocodiles can and do generate tears, the tears are not linked to emotion. Their lachrymal glands secrete a fluid behind their third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane. This fluid from their tear ducts functions to clean and lubricate the eye, and is most prominent and visible when crocodiles have been on dry land for a while. In the case of American crocodiles and saltwater crocodiles, the tears help rid of the excess salt that they take in with their food.
However, evidence suggests the tears could also be triggered by feeding. Bogorad’s syndrome is a condition which causes sufferers to shed tears while consuming food, so has been labelled “crocodile tears syndrome” with reference to the legend.
If I cry when I’m eating, it’s for one of two reasons. I may have put too many hot peppers in the stew. Or, the tears may signal my extreme joy to be filling my face.