Crocodile Tears (??????? ???????)

January 30, 2010, Chennai

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Crocodile TearsDo crocodiles shed tears?  Yes, they do. They have lachrymal glands and produce tears to lubricate the eyes just like humans.


But the tears will be visible only after a crocodile is out of the water for a prolonged period of time when the eyes dry out. What about the term “crocodile tears”? That term means an insincere show of sorrow or delivery of an apology. How did that term come into common parlance? Ancient belief held that crocodiles weep while devouring their prey showing remorse for their cruel act. Apparently the myth came into use by the 13th century in France. A Franciscan monk by name Bartholomaeus Anglicus wrote in his encyclopedia of natural sciences, “If the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water, or by the cliff, he slayeth him there if he may, and then weepeth upon him and swalloweth him at last”.

Such a myth eventually spread among literary works too. For example Shakespeare uses the term in Othello (Act IV, scene 1) thus:

"O devil,devil!

If that the earth could teem with woman's tears,

Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile”

Rudyard Kipling in the story of how the elephant got his trunk in the Just So Stories, wrote: “ ‘Come hither, Little One,’ said the Crocodile, ‘for I am the Crocodile,’ and he wept crocodile-tears to show it was quite true”. Even today, the phrase continues to be used in literature and the media, with some speculation on whether crocodiles actually cry.

But the crocodiles don’t cry like humans do. A zoologist (Kent Vliet) at the University of Florida concluded that crocodiles shed tears while eating their prey for physiological reasons. They usually hiss and huff while eating. The air that is forced through the sinuses may mix with tears in the tear glands making the tears empty into the eyes, sometimes with frothing.

The medical term crocodile tears syndrome refers to a spontaneous tearing occurring concurrently with the normal salivation of eating and is an uncommon consequence of recovery from Bell's palsy (also known as Human facial palsy) where the facial nerve destined for a salivary gland mistakenly re-grows into a tear gland causing sufferers to shed tears while eating.

For practical purposes, the term is taken to mean a false display of emotion where either the sadness was not genuine or the tears are used to gain sympathy while not deserving it. Let us revisit the term “crocodile tears” in the current context. Recently there has been a spate of instances of “crocodile tears” shed by prominent people.

A few months ago, Andre Agassi, a well-known tennis player, admitted in a media interview and a soul-searching autobiography that he used a forbidden drug called crystal methamphetamine in 1997. He denied using the drug (to tennis officials) at that time in order to escape a ban. He explained the positive laboratory test as an accidental ingestion from a soft drink. That lie exonerated him then.  Possession of such a drug carries up to 5 years of jail sentence in the US. In a television interview he was all tears explaining how sorry he was about using the drug as well as lying about it. Many critics were asking why he came forward at this time to admit it. They said no useful purpose would be served now after he retired from the sport. They said perhaps he was using such an occasion to promote his autobiographical book seeking pecuniary benefits.  Contrition should occur the first time the transgression is revealed and not much later with ulterior motives in mind. The term “crocodile tears” was used with its usual connotation.

Another incident of such a contrition occurred with the baseball slugger Mark McGwire. There were persistent rumors that he used performance-enhancing anabolic steroids for years. He denied such usage even while giving Congressional testimony under oath a few years ago. Recently he gave a media interview wherein he was remorseful and admitted using steroids and that he was sorry. Why did he deny then and why did he admit now? Critics contend that he was hired as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals team from the coming season and with a cloud hanging over his steroid use it was difficult for him as well as the team to go through such a deal without creating a controversy. So he came out “clean” attended by a goodly amount of “crocodile tears”. An admission and an apology coming long after it was due.

Such show of insincere sorrow does not escape politics either. Many politicians were involved in sexual scandals which they denied in the beginning only to admit in front of television cameras much later with sorrowful tears that can be found in an onion. In a partisan event that came to light recently some Republican Party officials in the US are taking the Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid to task for his comments in 2008 about why Barack Obama was electable. They are calling for Reid’s resignation in view of his “race-tinged” remarks. The democrats are calling this a case of “crocodile tears” because they say the Republicans were using the race card throughout the election campaign and now they cry foul about Reid’s “pragmatic” views which the Republicans still promote. A question of pot calling the kettle black, obviously!
Myth or fact, “crocodile tears” will be with us for a long time to come! Hope it does not inundate the earth!