The creature known as a crocodile may have a number of skills, but shedding real tears is not among them. At one point in history, however, it was believed that crocodiles did produce tears as they devoured their prey, particularly when the size of the prey exceeded the capacity of the crocodile. From this ancient and erroneous belief came the first literary reference to crocodile tears, meaning false tears shed during hypocritical displays of sadness, empathy or sympathy. Such tears may appear real, but they are intended to be more manipulative than sincere.
The modern concept of hypocritical "crocodile tears" can be traced back to Elizabethan times, if not earlier. Crocodiles were considered to be exotic creatures, rarely seen by the average citizen, but tales of their tear-shedding ways were fairly widespread. By the mid-1600, writers were already using the term to describe false displays of sadness or other deep emotions. Unscrupulous politicians and businessmen were often accused of shedding false tears in order to gain favor with commoners.
Shedding crocodile tears is still considered a less-than-respectful practice, especially when the person's true feelings or motivations are well-known. Some people can train themselves to cry at will, including the production of convincing tears when the situation calls for them. Others might use the acting technique called sense memory to recall a moment of true sadness in order to generate false tears. As a last resort, a few people have been known to use foreign irritants such as soap or pepper to cry for manipulative effect.
While it is true that crocodiles do not shed emotional tears for their prey, they do excrete a lubricating fluid from lachrymal glands near their eyes. Some have speculated that these glands are stimulated as the crocodile works its jaws during a meal. This is most likely the basis for the ancient belief of emotionally-based crocodile tears.
Regardless of its origins, the practice of shedding crocodile tears is generally considered insulting and demeaning. The shedder is often confronted by others who sense his or her insincerity or dubious motivations. Children who throw temper tantrums may also accompany them with fake tears, but parents often learn to ignore the ruse and allow the tantrum to run its course.