English Idioms Decoded: What Are Crocodile Tears?

After writing my last article explaining “rooting for the underdog,” I’ve since started watching analysis videos on the show Black Mirror by YouTuber Bryce Dallas Brown. In one of my favorite episodes, “Crocodile,” Brown gives a really good explanation why it was given that title. It symbolizes the crocodile-like grip of the consequences of the main character’s actions during the first draft of the episode, but the meaning got lost by the time the final script became what it was.

What interested me, though, was the theory that the title still makes sense because of the term “crocodile tears.” Fans speculate that the title is still a fitting one for the episode because of the way the main character sheds “crocodile tears” for the crimes she commits. Some people – especially people whose first language isn’t English – may not understand the meaning behind it.

So, if you’re looking for an in-depth explanation for the idiom “crocodile tears,” then look no further.


What Does “Crocodile Tears” Mean?

The idiom “crocodile tears” refers to someone who shows emotions like grief, sorrow, or pity but are insincere and has a habit of being hypocritical about the situation. That means when someone cries crocodile tears, their emotions aren’t real and they don’t really pity the person they’re crying for or feel sorry for their actions.

Origin of the Idiom Crocodile Tears

The idiom dates back to 14th or 15th century, but some reports claim it dates back all the way to the 13th century. It was believed that crocodiles cry when eating their prey. In the myth of The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Maundeville created around the 1400s, Sir John Maundeville claimed that crocodiles would slay men and then weep as they were eaten.

Several other historical texts allude to the belief that crocodiles cry when they devour their prey, but it wasn’t until 16th century’s Life of Grindal when we first see “crocodile tears” be used as an idiom by 1563. So that means the term “crocodile tears” developed in English vernacular until it became an idiom in between the 14th and 16th century.


While it is true that crocodiles cry when they eat (and even some humans with Bogorad’s syndrome, which is also known as “crocodile tears syndrome), they do it not because out of false emotional distress. While biologists aren’t still sure why they cry, one plausible theory is that tears come out of their eyes when they eat because crocodiles release air from their sinuses chomp down on their prey.

Crocodiles are known for having strong jaws for chomping down, which is why it’s easier to keep a crocodile’s mouth shut rather than trying to prevent it from closing down. So, just think of it as a pressurized machine: for a crocodile to totally bite down on its prey, it needs to use a lot of force to keep its mouth shut, which requires releasing additional air inside them that prevents them from making a tight shut.

Contrary to the idiom, though, they don’t cry because of false emotion. However, since we equate tears to emotion, in a human sense, it is confusing why a predator would cry when chomping down their prey. Hence, the idea of crocodile tears was created. Even if a crocodile looks like it is crying, they aren’t really sad for their prey. It’s simply a physical appearance of being sad, but not necessarily a genuine show of emotion.


Crocodile Tears: Example 1

Going back to the “Crocodile” episode in Black Mirror, the episode is a great way to define someone who sheds crocodile tears. If you haven’t watched the episode yet, skip ahead to the second example if you want to avoid spoilers.

The episode revolves around Mia, a successful architect and mother who murders several people in an attempt to hide a dark secret. Fifteen years before the events of the episode, Mia witnesses her boyfriend, Rob, hit a cyclist while drunk driving and is forced to help him get rid of the body. In the present, Rob informs her that he intends to anonymously confess to the crime to ease his conscience, but Mia is worried she will be implicated. In an attempt to save her reputation, she kills Rob. At the same time, she witnesses a vehicle-pedestrian collision outside her hotel room.

Photo credits from: Netflix

Shortly after getting rid of Rob’s body, Mia is tracked down by Shazia, an insurance investigator trying to find witnesses of the collision and using a device to scan their memories and verify the accident. Despite Mia’s attempts to block the memory of the two murders, Shazia witnesses what happened. Mia murders her then goes on to murder Shazia’s husband (who knows Shazia went to visit Mia), and Shazia’s infant son (who saw Mia’s face and whose memories can be used to track her down). However, she failed to kill the family’s guinea pig and the police use its memories to track down Mia and arrest her.

Each time Mia kills throughout the episode, she cries for the victim. This is why fans say that despite the massive changes since “Crocodile’s” original draft, the episode title “Crocodile” still applies because Mia constantly sheds crocodile tears for all the victims in her wake.

Prior to her string of murders, Mia could have chosen not to kill anyone and accept the risk that Rob’s anonymous letter could implicate her in the hit-and-run. Rob had promised to leave her out of his confession and not implicate her on anything, but she couldn’t accept the chance because her successful life was at stake.

If she thought life was a precious thing, she could have not killed any of her four victims in the first place. But she was thinking about herself and the consequences of her secret coming out, which means her tears for her victims are insincere because she could have chosen not to kill them.


Crocodile Tears Example 2

For less serious examples, here are some examples of people who shed crocodile tears. Note that when a person says someone is shedding crocodile tears, they don’t necessarily have to be physically crying. Sometimes, this also refers to someone claiming to experience sorrow, grief, remorse, or any emotion that usually involves crying.

  • A politician offering his apologies to the public after he was caught performing corrupt activities. In such instances, they’re not sorry they did it, but are sorry they got caught.
  • A wealthy person can be shedding crocodile tears for the poor but continue to live without doing anything to help them.
  • An employer sheds crocodile tears when they tell an employee they’re sorry to let them go even though they’re happy this employee is finally leaving the company.
  • A family member crying crocodile tears when attending the funeral of another family member they dislike.
  • A widowed man who marries immediately after his wife’s death sheds crocodile tears at her funeral because he did not wait an appropriate time to mourn her memory.
  • A schoolyard bully shedding crocodile tears when they are expelled due to their actions.

In all cases, these people shed crocodile tears because they are not sincerely remorseful or as sad as they claim to be. In cases where they apologize for their actions, it’s considered crocodile tears because they could have chosen not to perform the action but did so anyway, only to start crying when they have to face the serious consequences of their actions.


How to Use “Crocodile Tears” in a Sentence

Unless you’re going for a confrontational or accusatory approach, never tell someone you think they are shedding crocodile tears. To do so is to accuse them of being fake or insincere. And if that is what you’re going for, it is best to be in a position where you have evidence that suggests they’re not as sincere as they make themselves out to be.

You can use this, however, in a conversation with someone (preferably someone you trust) when you share your belief that a third person not in the conversation is acting sincerely. Say that you see your Cousin Mark crying in your Uncle James’ funeral. You know that Mark never really liked your Uncle James, but he expects to receive a huge inheritance and plays the role of a mourning son. If you want to accuse Mark of faking his grief, tell him you can see past his crocodile tears. This may most likely lead to an argument between the two of you, so avoid saying it if you don’t want to start conflict. On the other hand, you can confide in your siblings and other close relatives who can see past Mark’s lies and talk about Mark’s crocodile tears. If they know Mark as well as you do, they may be inclined to agree; if not, they may try to defend him. You’re unlikely to start an argument if you share this with someone you trust.


Just because there are tears and sadness does not mean the emotion is genuine. Don’t be fooled by anyone’s crocodile tears because their emotion may mean a lot less than you think. The idiom may be commonplace, but avoid accusing anyone of shedding crocodile tears unless you’re ready to start an argument about it.

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