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Crocodile eyes. Source: Георгий Лыкин / Adobe Stock.

The Expression ‘To Shed Crocodile Tears’ Has Bizarre Medieval Origins


Today, when someone accuses another of shedding "crocodile tears," they are suggesting that the person is displaying fake or insincere sorrow. But how did this phrase come into being? The answer takes us back to a bizarre medieval myth that found its way into a widely read travelogue and later cemented itself in literary history through the works of William Shakespeare.

The Advent in "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville"

The roots of the phrase take us back to the 14th century, anchored in the wildly popular narrative chronicled in "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville." This travelogue, brimming with the brave knight’s adventures in Asia, served as a treasure trove of astonishing discoveries and more than a pinch of fabrications. One such fabrication was the detailed account of crocodiles, described as serpents shedding tears of sadness while mercilessly killing and consuming their prey, a portrayal adding a layer of remorse to the predator’s nature. Mandeville noted with a vivid imagination, “These serpents sley men, and eate them weeping, and they have no tongue”.

This depiction, while fascinating, is scientifically inaccurate; crocodiles do indeed have tongues, and while crocodiles can shed tears, it is not linked to emotion. Nevertheless, this account managed to weave itself into the fabric of literary history, captivating readers with a peculiar blend of horror and empathy evoked by the crying crocodiles.

A cartoon by Bernhard Gillam depicting Ulysses S. Grant courting Jewish voters by crying "crocodile tears" over the persecution of Jews in Russia. Public domain.

A cartoon by Bernhard Gillam depicting Ulysses S. Grant courting Jewish voters by crying "crocodile tears" over the persecution of Jews in Russia. Public domain.

From Shakespeare to Modern Language

The myth of the crying crocodile traveled through time and found its firm imprint in none other than the works of the literary maestro, William Shakespeare. It was through his brilliant scripts in the 16th century that “crocodile tears” evolved from a medieval fable to a widely recognized idiom portraying feigned sorrow. In "Othello," one of his famed plays, the expression was utilized to demonstrate deceptive lamentations, giving the idiom a broader spectrum of usage.

Over centuries, the term has become an established part of the English language, used to describe insincere displays of emotion. It stands as an example of how imaginative stories can give rise to phrases that vividly convey human behavior and emotions in everyday language.

Top image: Crocodile eyes.        Source: Георгий Лыкин / Adobe Stock.

By Joanna Gillan

Joanna Gillan's picture


Joanna Gillan is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. 

Joanna completed a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree in Australia and published research in the field of Educational Psychology. She has a rich and varied career, ranging from teaching... Read More

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