clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What’s with bulldogs? They don’t look like bulls to me

Dear Cecil:

I've been looking at bulldogs for longer than I care to remember, but damned if I can see how they're supposed to look like bulls. To me, they've always resembled decaying watermelons. What's the connection? And speaking of animals (deft segue, huh?), whence comes the expression "crocodile tears"? From crocodiles, no doubt, but a little elaboration would be appreciated.

Mike K., Los Angeles

Cecil replies:

Bulldogs are the product of centuries of selective breeding, but the goal was fighting ability, not good looks. The name doesn’t come from any resemblance to a bull, but refers instead to the bulldogs’ mission in life — they were bred to attack and maim bulls in a popular spectator sport of the Middle Ages known as “bull-baiting.” The dog’s assignment was to sink his teeth as far into the bull’s nose as he could and hold on. The bull would counter by attempting to disembowel the dog. The winning dog was the one who managed to hold on the longest. The owners of the dogs, naturally, would pay a service charge to the bull’s manager to cover wear and tear.

The sportsmen of the Middle Ages bred their dogs to conform to the requirements of the game. Short, squat dogs were favored because they were harder to tackle than the more willowy breeds. The bull owners, for their part, preferred dogs with short teeth, so the bull’s snout wouldn’t suffer excessive damage. But the real advantage of the bulldog lay in the shape of the head. Ordinary dogs had a problem: the bull’s nose would swell when bitten, often to the point where the ballooning flesh would block the dog’s nostrils — and when you’re choking, it’s hard to maintain a grip on an irritated bull. The bulldog’s nose, though, is turned up and set back a bit from the teeth, affording plenty of breathing space between the jaws and the expanding bull snout.

As for “crocodile tears,” crocodiles, it seems, actually do cry, not because of their sensitive natures but in order to lubricate their food. The tears run from the eyes down into the mouth and throat, softening whatever the croc has taken a bite of and easing it down the chute. The tears were often confused with a show of emotion in the first accounts of the animals to reach England. Sir John Mandeville writes, “In many places of Inde are many crocodiles — that is, a manner of long serpent. These serpents slay men and eat them weeping.” Another writer, Edward Topsell, passes along a more cynical intepretation: “There are not many brute beasts that can weep, but such is the nature of the crocodile that, to get a man within his danger, he will sob, sigh, and weep as though he were in extremity, but suddenly he destroyeth him.” It was Topsell’s version that was adapted by Shakespeare, Spenser, and other poets as a metaphor for an insincere show of feeling, and from there the expression entered common currency.

(For an update on this column, click here.)

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via