Q From Gareth Cook: When I used the phrase crocodile tears recently I was asked to provide a derivation. My dictionary is not very enlightening; can you help?
A To weep crocodile tears is to pretend a sorrow that one doesn’t in fact feel, to create a hypocritical show of emotion. The idea comes from the ancient belief that crocodiles weep while luring or devouring their prey.
This story seems to have been taken up by medieval French and English writers and that’s where we get it from. For example, in 1565 Sir John Hawkins wrote: “In this river we saw many Crocodils .. His nature is ever when he would have his prey, to cry and sob like a Christian body, to provoke them to come to him, and then he snatcheth at them”.
The first example known in English seems to be in a travel book of about 1400, The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville (I’ve modernised the spelling somewhat): “In many places of Inde are many crocodiles — that is, a manner of long serpent. These serpents slay men and they eat them weeping”. One version of the story says that the beast weeps over the head after having eaten the body, not from repentance but from frustrated gluttony: the head is simply too bony to be worth consuming.
The story was taken up by Edmund Spenser in The Fairie Queen and then by Shakespeare. Having such authorities on its side made it almost inevitable that the reference would stay in the language. For example, in the story of how the elephant got his trunk in the Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling: “ ‘Come hither, Little One,’ said the Crocodile, ‘for I am the Crocodile,’ and he wept crocodile-tears to show it was quite true”.
My naturalist friends tell me that crocodiles can’t cry, because they have no tear ducts — they would be useless in an animal that spends so much time in the water. The eyes can produce secretions to moisten the lids if the animal is out of the water for a while, but these are hardly tears. I am told, though, by people well versed in crocodilian biology that the glands that moisten the eyes are so close to the animal’s throat that the effort of swallowing forces moisture from them, so giving the impression of tears.