The History of “Say Cheese!”

The History of Say Cheese

We’ve all heard the saying, but do we know what we’re really saying? The phrase, “say cheese” has become extremely popular in our society but does anyone know why? The most common theory, and what may be the truest, is the fact that the word “cheese” forces you to bring your teeth together in a way that opens up your lips and exposes your teeth and makes you smile. There are many other words in the English language that cause your mouth to make the same facial expression. So how did we land on the word “cheese”?

To start, it may be surprising to know that pictures weren’t all smiles back when taking photographs were rare. The elite and powerful were the only ones that could afford to have photographs taken of them. Photography would commonly take pictures of them in a way that only had them pursing their lips. Smiling was seen as something that only the lower class and children did.

In looking back to the popular phrase’s origins, one of the first ways “cheese” was used in a way to make someone smile was during the 1940s, appearing in The Big Spring Herald in 1943:

“Now here’s something worth knowing. It’s a formula for smiling when you have your picture taken. It comes from former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies and is guaranteed to make you look pleasant no matter what you’re thinking. Mr. Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of his “Mission to Moscow.” It’s simple. Just say “Cheese,” It’s an automatic smile. “I learned that from a politician,” Mr. Davies chuckled. “An astute politician, a very great politician. But, of course, I cannot tell you who he was…”

After this article published, people began using this term and it caught on because now it’s a well-known phrase in the English language!

If you’re looking to start a new revolution in smiling, try some of these other options to make your pictures turn out with smiles all around! Words like “money,” “breeze” and “whiskey” are all ways to turn that frown upside down.

Looking for other ways to get people to smile? Check out How to Make People Smile in Photos for more tips and tricks.

Wonder what other countries say when they want to spread the joy of smiles when taking a picture? Below is a list of different countries with their version of “say cheese.” You’ll notice that some words make your mouth say things in the same way that the English word, “cheese,” is pronounced. Next time you’re taking a picture, maybe you should try one!

Bulgaria: “Zele”, meaning “Cabbage”

Brazil: the phrase is “Olha o passarinho” (“Look at the little bird”) or “Digam ‘X'” (“Say ‘X‘”) (the name of the letter “X” in Portuguese sounds a lot like the word “cheese”)

China: the word used is 茄子 (qie2zi), meaning “eggplant“. The pronunciation of this word is notably similar to that of the English word “cheese”

Croatia:  the word used is “ptičica”, meaning “little bird”

Czech Republic: the word used is “sýr”, meaning cheese in Czech”

Denmark: “Sig ‘appelsin'”, meaning “Say ‘orange‘” is often used

Finland: “Muikku” is the word often used by photographers to make people smile

France: the word “ouistiti,” meaning marmoset, is often used

Germany: food-related words like “Spaghetti”, “Käsekuchen” (cheesecake), Wurst are used, mainly to make children laugh for the picture

Hungary: the photographer says Itt repül a kis madár [here flies the little bird], but also the English “cheese” is used mostly by younger people

India: they say “paneer

Iran: the word used is سیب (saib), meaning “Apple

Israel: the word used is תגיד גבינה (Tagid Gvina), meaning “say cheese”

Japan: “Sei, No…” meaning “Ready, Set!” is often used. Also チーズ (chïzu), meaning cheese

Vietnam: they often say “2…3…Cười lên nào!!!”

Korea: one says “kimchi

Latin America: the phrase used is “Diga ‘whiskey'” (“Say ‘whiskey‘”)

Nigeria: many photographers prompt the subjects of their photographs to say “Ode” which can be translated to mean “dumb person”

Russia: they say “сыр”, pronounced seer, which means “cheese” in Russian. The pronunciation is extended, to lengthen the time the “smile” is on the face

Serbia: the word used is “птичица” meaning “Little bird”

Slovakia: the word used is “syr”, meaning cheese in Slovak

Spain: the equivalent form is “di/decid patata” (“say potato“)

Sweden: “Säg ‘omelett'”, meaning “Say ‘omelette‘” is often used

Turkey: “Peynir”, which means cheese

Although “say cheese” has become quite a popular saying in the United States, it really doesn’t matter what you say as long as you open up and show off those pearly whites for the camera!



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