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What are Crocodile Tears?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By wavy58 — On Jul 07, 2012

I think it is so sad that crocodiles actually shed tears! I mean, they probably don't feel remorse over eating their prey, but still, imagine if you walked up on a crocodile that was crying while eating. Wouldn't your heart go out to him just a little?

I think that I would feel an urge to console him, which might result in him getting dessert! Still, I can't stand to see anyone or anything cry, even if it is doing something horrible simultaneously.

For all we know, there might be a bit of emotion accompanying these tears. Maybe the crocodile is really sad that he was born a meat-eater. We don't have any way of finding out.

By OeKc05 — On Jul 06, 2012

I've seen kids throw tantrums, and I wouldn't define crocodile tears as part of the process. Every child I've ever seen in the midst of a screaming rage is genuinely upset.

By the time they reach the point of tears, they are usually just overwhelmed with emotion. The strain of the tantrum has taken so much out of them emotionally and physically that the tears may actually be real.

My little sister threw several tantrums as a toddler, and every time she would dissipate into tears, it was because she didn't quite understand what had just happened to her. Anger and frustration had taken her over, and she had been under their control.

By DylanB — On Jul 05, 2012

I had a friend who used to cry tears on command to get her teacher to feel sorry for her. For the first several times, it worked.

She cried because she forgot to do her homework so that she wouldn't get punished. The teacher let her get away with it. However, the third time this happened, she had to punish her anyway.

So, crocodile tears have their limit. You can only use them a time or two on one person, because they will quickly catch on to your plan. My friend just happened to be a good actress, and she went on to star in several plays.

By orangey03 — On Jul 05, 2012

@turkay1 – In a way, actors' tears are crocodile tears. Though they don't have evil intentions, they do have to manipulate the audience into believing what the character is feeling.

So, even though it isn't true deceit, it is still a form of taking the situation and twisting it. Without the crocodile tears, the emotional scene would fall flat, and no one in the audience would respond the way that the writer intended.

Also, since they are sometimes induced by irritants, they are not always true tears. When they can't get into character enough to cry for real, then they use these irritants to deceive the audience into thinking that they are really feeling the scene so much that they are able to cry.

By candyquilt — On Jul 04, 2012

@fify-- From what I've read, that's a myth! Crocodiles don't lure their prey with tears. There is a very good scientific explanation for why crocodiles tear up while eating. It has to do with their jaw muscles triggering their tear glands.

Meaning-wise, if a motive is necessary for tears to be "crocodile tears," then why is this metaphor used in theater?

I don't think "acting" is "deceiving" at all, it's an art. Actors are able to "become" the character they play on stage and many actors I know get into their role so well that their tears are as sincere as any other. Even if the actor uses certain products to tear up, I don't think this fits the definition of "crocodile tears."

What do you think?

By fify — On Jul 03, 2012

@ankara-- I've heard that in addition to crying sometimes while eating their prey, crocodiles also cry beforehand to lure their prey near them. So they hide their true intention with their tears.

I know it seems odd for children to be able to do this but really, children experience many emotions that we do as adults. And they learn from a young age how certain actions on their part get them desirable results. So I don't find it surprising that children can shed 'fake' tears to get what they want.

Physiologically, there is no difference between crocodile tears and real tears anyway. It's the motive (or lack of one) that differentiates them. I think a mother will know which one her child is engaging in. But some mothers have a weak spot for tears and might give in to their child's wants despite knowing that the child is crying crocodile tears.

By bluedolphin — On Jul 03, 2012
I never knew the origin of the crocodile tears idiom until now. I thought that the phrase came about because crocodiles are unlikely animals to cry, which means that people who shed crocodile tears are unlikely to be sincere in their emotional outburst.

I guess many of us are guilty of shedding crocodile tears at one point or another, especially if it works to get us what we want. If crocodile tears don't serve this purpose, I don't think anyone would continue to use it.

It's also interesting how children whom we consider to be naive and innocent for the most part are able to cry at whim when they don't get what they want! I think some kids are experts at crocodile tears, but for a mother, I imagine that it's hard to tell apart sincere tears from fake ones.

Are there any parents here who have kids that use crocodile tears to get their way?

By doglover139 — On Jun 29, 2011

My mom always told me not to shed crocodile tears. Up until now, I always thought it meant "big tears," because crocodiles are fairly large. Thank you, WiseGEEK!

By anon70293 — On Mar 13, 2010

women are the masters of using crocodile tears along with makeup. you see, you have to makeup a lie.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

Writer

As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
Learn more
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