When you need everyone to smile for a photo, there’s one obvious tagline to use: “Say Cheese!”
But why? Why did “say cheese” catch on? Some say the way you move your mouth in the process of saying “cheese” forces you to show some teeth. That said, lots of words can cause you to show teeth as you pronounce them. For the word “cheese” in particular, it may be a matter of celebrity – it was probably popularized by a US President.
The Source of “Say Cheese”
The probable source of this phrase is revealed pretty clearly in an interview given to a Texas newspaper in the 1940s.
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…”
The ambassador was purposefully a bit mysterious, but Joseph Davies was a long time adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many suspect that he was referencing Roosevelt in this quote.
This etymology lines up well with the history of smiling in photography overall. The 1940s seem to mark a tipping point for the shift from serious faces in photos to cheerful smiles. Studies on yearbook photos, for example, demonstrate this by measuring average lip curvature over the years. “Say cheese” comes right around the same time that lip curvature starts trending up, providing linguistic support for the change in attitudes around photography.
Alternatives to “Say Cheese”
Back when photography was more of an expensive, serious affair, the style was to “say prunes”. This was to suggest subjects purse their lips a bit, making a serious, small mouthed expression. The food motif is popular across cultures even in modern times: whiskey, cheese, kimchi, and apple are all options depending on your locale. Some non-English speaking people even just use “say cheese” as a loan phrase.