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What do you call it when you profess inauthentic sympathy for past behavior when that behavior has directly benefited you? Hypothetical Example: my family members from 175 years ago burned down some rival family's house so that my family could build a house in that spot, and, 175 years later, I discover oil on that land. Of course, I would be very wealthy etc.. What is the word to describe this action: I say to people that the house burning from 175 years ago was a "tragedy." Of course, in my mind I would say to myself "I am really glad that they burned that house down! Otherwise I wouldn't be rich!" How do you describe that type of hypocrisy?

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Someone might say that you’re crying crocodile tears, false or affected tears, a hypocritical show of sorrow.

This doesn't express that the behavior benefited you, but comes close to your meaning as expressed in your title "Fake sympathy for a past event." Still, Merriam Webster provided two recent examples of the expression “crocodile tears” on the web, and I wondered whether the idea of benefit would be present in the articles. (Your suggestion was not that the tears were advantageous, but rather that they were shed over past events that were advantageous.)

The first article was unbearable, so I doubt I will ever know more about that one.

But the second article was a tolerably interesting story about the Menendez boys who murdered their parents. The article mused:

Was greed at the heart of this crime—are Lyle and Eric the most extreme spoiled brats in Beverly Hills? ... Over the course of those those six months, they reportedly spent $1 million on parties, travel, and shopping... Lyle dropped over $15,000 on three Rolex watches... Then he wondered aloud to another friend in the car how he could obtain tickets to the U.S. Open.

So while Merriam Webster did not include this idea of benefit in the definition of "crocodile tears," it does (at least sometimes) show up in the cited uses.

As one may see at the Project Gutenberg text, Spenser's The Fairy Queen contains the lines "As when a wearie traveller... Doth meete a cruell craftie Crocodile, Which in false griefe hyding his harmefull guile, Doth weepe full sore, and sheddeth tender teares." Of course in connection to an actual crocodile, the idea of benefit is obvious.

There is a note on that word "teares": "This mention of the man-eating crocodile's tears is based on an old Latin proverb. Sir John Mandeville repeats the story."

Perhaps that note was written by George Armstrong Wauchope, who is credited as the editor in the Gutenberg text of The Fairy Queen. And perhaps the passage in his mind was this one, on page 190 in one version of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

In that country and by all Ind be great plenty of cockodrills, that is a manner of a long serpent, as I have said before. And in the night they dwell in the water, and on the day upon the land, in rocks and in caves. And they eat no meat in all the winter, but they lie as in a dream, as do the serpents. These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.

Shakespeare's Othello contains another line cited in articles about this expression: "O devil, devil! If that the earth could teem with woman's tears, Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile. Out of my sight!" I admit to some uncertainty what those words mean.

According to The Phrase Finder web page and the Oxford University Press Blog, the expression "crocodile tears" was first used in the modern sense (to refer to insincere expressions of disappointment with no connection to crocodiles) in 1563 by Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of York and of Canterbury, (and re-published in Strype's Life of Grindal, 1711): "I begin to fear, lest his humility ... be a counterfeit humility, and his tears crocodile tears." The full text of that article seems to be available here.

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As in:

He feigned sympathy for past behavior, as that behavior had directly benefited him.

to feign TFD

  • To give a false appearance of: feign sleep.
  • To represent falsely; pretend to: feign authorship of a novel.
  • To imitate so as to deceive: feign another's voice.
  • To fabricate: feigned an excuse.

Feign comes from the Latin fingere "to devise, fabricate."

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