Sunday, September 17, 2006

Crocodile tears

When you hear it said that someone is shedding 'crocodile tears,' the meaning is that the tears are either insincere or are being used to garner sympathy. But where in the world did that expression come from? Do crocodiles weep?

To answer the second question first -- sort of. Crocodiles produce tears. OK, so it's not exactly
weeping in the sense that they're sad or remorseful about something. It's merely that, yes, they have tear ducts just like the rest of us. And when the croc has been out of the water for a while and its eyes are starting to dry out, tears do seep out of these ducts.

So where did the phrase "crocodile tears" come from? It's been around for a long, long time. The first recorded observation about crocodile tears occurs in 1225. Bartholomaeus Angelicus, a Franciscan monk, wrote an encyclopedia of natural sciences (though based on what he wrote one does have to wonder if he had ever actually seen a croc): "If the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water, or by the cliff, he slayeth him there if he may, and then weepeth upon him and swalloweth him at last."

Sir John Mandeville perpetuated this myth in his travel book The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, published in the 1400s, writing: "In many places of Inde are many crocodiles -- that is, a manner of long serpent. These serpents slay men and they eat them weeping."

In 1565 slave trader Sir John Hawkins wrote: "In this river we saw many Corcodils...His nature is ever when he would have his prey, to cry and sobbe like a Christian body, to provoke them to come to him, and then he snatcheth at them." The implication is clearly that the crocodile lures his prey with false weeping.

With misinformation like that, is it any surprise that the term 'crocodile tears' still colors our language? Edmund Spenser referred to it in his Faerie Queen; and in Othello Shakespeare accused women of shedding crocodile tears to get their way. We still hear it used today in literature and even in news reports. The phrase lives on even though no one has ever documented a crocodile weeping
(or ever will).

References: Florida Museum of Natural History;


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