What’s Up Crocodile Tears?

(Last Updated On: December 15, 2020)

You’ve probably heard the expression before, mostly to show false sympathy for other people when we feel like calling out others for being disingenuous. But why do we tell people they’re crying crocodile tears when we think they’re being fake? Do crocodiles cry in the first place or this just another one of those weird things someone came up with a long time ago and we just didn’t question it? Are we having an existential crisis over crocodiles? Probably. But what’s up with crocodile tears?

Crocodile Tears: Origins

So let’s go back in time for a bit, to one where we didn’t understand how crocodiles worked–because it’s that time that gives us the expression. It dates back to at least 1400, making a print appearance in The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Maundeville. Though the use of crocodile tears in its contemporary form probably waited until the 16th Century to make its appearance with Edmund Grindal’s writing.

“I begin to fear, lest his humility … be a counterfeit humility, and his tears crocodile tears.”

Anyway the myth dating back to 1400. People believed that crocodiles cried when they ate their prey. Which we then anthropomorphized into crocodiles feeling grief for their prey, which is pretty disingenuous. Because duh.

While we know it dates back to 1400, some scattered musings attributed to Plutarch suggest that we’ve been tossing crocodile tears around for a really long time. Even, kind of, in its contemporary form; for people who want someone to die, but then mourn their death afterwards. 

Regardless, you know the expression was popular because Shakespeare used it all the time. 

Later interpretations of crocodile tears would also be introduced. One held that crocodiles cried as a way to feign distress, lowering their prey’s guard before obliterating them. Still in line with the whole “you’re super fake” thing. 

Do Crocodiles Cry Though?

Alright, we’re not really qualified to engage in the existential debate as to whether or not crocodiles and other animals feel the same emotions we do. Let’s just assume that it doesn’t matter. What we’re concerned with is whether or not crocodiles cry when they eat.

It turns out that the answer is actually yes. A crocodile tearing you apart in its jaws actually would cry about it. Whether or not they feel bad about it is up for debate, but it does appear to be involuntary and physiological on the part of the crocodile. Oh also, alligators will too. They’re close enough relatives to have the same crying patterns, we suppose.

Further Reading: What Is the Difference Between Alligators and Crocodiles?

University of Florida zoologists found that alligators in captivity teared up when digging into their food. Apparently some of their eyes “frothed” or “bubbled,” which is not a sensation we ever want to think about in relation to our eyes again. They concluded that the alligator’s tear ducts were getting stimulated by warm air hitting their eyes while they were feeding. 

Crocodiles also exhibit similar patterns with their tears. They also cry in ways not too unlike us. They’ll tear up if they’ve been outside the water too long, because their eyeballs are drying out. 

Do you think these animals would cry about being named after crocodiles? Take a peek here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.