Famous Sayings: #59 — ‘Say Cheese!’

April 28, 2017

Now, say ‘cheese!’

say cheese, famous sayings, smile

Photograph by Scubaspa Maldives (via Flickr; some rights reserved – CC License 2.0)

I originally had another idiom ready for today, but I changed my mind when I came across a Google doodle. As it turns out, today would have been Marie Harel’s 256th birthday today. The Frenchwoman was the inventor of Camembert cheese.

After finding that out and reading up a bit, I decided to go with “Say cheese.” It’s a loose connection, but bear with me…


Why Do We Say ‘Cheese’?

For this post, I consulted an article on Today I Found Out and an entry on The Phrase Finder.

Today I Found Out

At Today I Found Out, a reader named Sue T. asked a two-part question. First, she asked why people “say cheese” became a popular phrase to use when taking pictures. Second, she asked why people did not smile in the earliest pictures taken.

Terynn Boulton’s answer was quite thorough. But for the purposes of this post, I will only focus on the first part of the answer.

In answering the first question, Boulton said the phrase may have been chosen (for English speakers) because of how our mouths and teeth move when we say “cheese.” As we make the “ch” and “ee” sounds, we usually pull back our lips a little bit and show our pearly whites.

The Phrase Finder

Gary Martin presents much of the same information I found in the Today I Found Out article, but he provides a little bit more information. In short, we do not know the origin of the phrase “Say cheese!” but it is used by a photographer to elicit smiles in those being photographed.

Martin reminds his readers that some photographers have told people posing for photographs to “watch the birdie,” although there was often a literal “birdie” to look at. Children were likely being told to look at a toy birdie that moved in order to hold their attention and illicit smiles for a photograph.

Martin points out there is no “literal link between ‘say cheese’ and the meaning of the word cheese.” He then goes on to say the “now rather archaic term ‘cheese it’” meant “run away.” He immediately rejects that as a possible meaning behind “Say cheese.”

In the end, Martin agrees it is likely that we “say cheese” because of the way our mouths move when we say the word “cheese.” And like Martin says, it may appear as a grimace, but we generally smile when we say it.

I’ll add we might smile when saying “cheese” for at least two reasons:

  1. Many people like cheese.
  2. It sounds pretty ridiculous, if not disappointing because we’re not getting any cheese for taking a picture.

Who First Use the Phrase ‘Say Cheese’ to Illicit Smiles?

The phrase likely originated sometime in the 1940’s (or the previous decade), but Boulton and Martin pointed to the same source.

in an October 1943 edition of The Big Spring Daily Herald (Texas) is cited, there is was an article entitled, “Need To Put On A Smile? Here’s How: Say ‘Cheese.’” From that article, there was this passage:

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…”

It is believed that politician was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, since Davies once served as ambassador under FDR.


By the Way, What’s Your Favorite Type of Cheese?

It’s hard for me to choose sometimes, but I’m simply a fan of cheddar and Monterey Jack. I also like Ricotta, depending on the dish.


Works Cited

Boulton, Terynn. “The Origin of ‘Say Cheese’ and When People Started Smiling in Photographs.” Today I Found Out. 2 Apr 2013. Web. Retrieved 28 Apr 2017. <http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/04/the-origin-of-say-cheese-and-when-people-started-smiling-in-photographs/>.

Kilpatrick, Ryan. “Google Doodle Celebrates Marie Harel, the Inventor of Camembert Cheese.” Time. 27 Apr 2017. Web. <http://time.com/4758882/google-doodle-marie-harel-camembert/>.

Martin, Gary. “Say cheese.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 28 Apr 2017. Web. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/say-cheese.html>.

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