Talking Cheese: Say Cheese? | culture: the word on cheese
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Talking Cheese: Say Cheese?

In this blog series, intern Julia will explore the everyday language surrounding cheese, from etymology to idioms to associations. Learn why we “say cheese” when we take a photo, why once upon a time we believed that the moon was made of green cheese, or even the history of the word cheese itself. Plus, be sure to answer the prompt at the end of the post each week for a chance to win a copy of culture’s ultimate cheese pairing guide: Cheese+ Last week, we discussed the origin of the word cheese, and the winner from that round is Kevin. Congrats and good luck to everyone for this week!

Photography is an incredible medium, and one that I’ve been around for most of my life. When I was little, I borrowed my father’s camera so often that it eventually became my own. Now, I’m the one at family events with camera in hand, pushing people into groups and attempting to capture flattering candids. I don’t remember the first time I insisted a person “say cheese,” but I’ve said it thousands of times since. It is only recently that I wondered why an aged hunk of curds is associated with smiling in photographs – why not instruct someone to “say pineapple” or “say puppy”?

 Some of you probably know that people originally didn’t smile in photographs. This was for a combination of reasons – cultural norms, bad dental care, the long exposure times required to capture an image. However, the grim-faced photograph is mostly a relic of the past. A BBC article from December 2011 mentions that “a desire to move away from ‘repressed’ Victorian era attitudes and better technology may also have played a part in the demise of serious looking poses.” Slowly, the smile became standard.

The new challenge for photographers was getting people to look at the camera and look happy at the same time. In the early years of photography, the “birdie” helped entice photo subjects to both sit still and smile. Mostly geared towards children who were less likely to listen, the mechanical “birdie” would make the children laugh while also giving them something to look at – it was usually held just above the camera.

Similarly to the birdie, “say cheese” became a way for adults to know the photograph was about to be taken, but no one knows who first said it or why. There is, sadly, no known link between “say cheese” and our favorite dairy product – but the double “e” of “cheese” creates a baring of the teeth reminiscent of a smile.

“Say cheese” turned from casual practice to readily-given advice. According to the website, an article from October 1943 called “Need To Put On A Smile? Here’s How: Say ‘Cheese’” was published in The Big Spring Daily Herald, based in Texas. It stated:

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.

The practice spread rather quickly. According to a critical essay by Christina Kotchemidova, Kodak’s history may have had a lot to do with this. When the company released the $1 Brownie camera in 1900, it was a hard sell: Prior to this, cameras were clunky, unwieldy, and complicated, meant for professional photographers and not the general public. Kodak’s marketing tactic was to promote this as a simple, hands-on device that would help you capture the happiness of your life. Kodak did not use “say cheese” on any of their marketing materials, so it is unlikely they came up with the phrase. But they did encourage  society to fall in love with cameras and photographs, leaving a cultural space for this smile-inducing phrase.


Photo credit Eastman Kodak

It turns out Americans are not the only ones who “say cheese,” although most countries use different words. Bulgaria, for example, likes to say “Cabbage!” (Зеле); Hungarians favor “Small bird” (Csíz); those in Spain say “Potato!” (Patata). Multiple places still use a translation of “where’s the birdie?” or “look at the birdie.” There are, however, a few languages that use their own equivalent word for cheese: Greek (Πες τυρί), Hebrew (Tagid chiz), and Indonesian (Katakan keju). In Germany, some people are photographers are known to ask their subjects to say “Käsekuchen”–cheesecake. (Explore a full list at Omniglot!)

Wheels of cheese may not have been the inspiration for this common phrase, but hearing the phrase definitely puts me in mind of my favorite curds!

Given the variety of texture and appearance, cheese lends itself quite well to having its portrait done. Have you ever photographed cheese, for a blog or article or just for fun? What are some tips and tricks for getting the best photo? Answer in the comments section by April 1, 2014 at 12:00 midnight EDT for a chance to win an issue of our upcoming special issue, Cheese+. Also, don’t forget to stop by next week for an investigation into the world of dreams – and the belief that cheese can give you nightmares.

Featured Image Photo Credit: FreddieBrown via Compfight cc

Julia Domenicucci

Julia Domenicucci is an online editorial intern for culture who loves to try new foods almost as much as she loves trying new books. Born just outside of Boston and now attending school in the heart of it, Julia has come to really love the city, its art museums, and all the restaurants in the North End.

7 thoughts on “Talking Cheese: Say Cheese?”

  1. Jeffrey says:

    The only cheese I have ever photographed has been on a pizza. Cheese usually doesn’t sit out long enough to be photographed around me because I gobble it up!

    1. Julia Domenicucci says:

      I’m surprised the pizza lasts long enough for you to take a photo! Maybe next time you have cheese you should photograph it while you wait for it to come to room temperature…I should try that since I usually sit there quite impatiently!

  2. SICA says:

    Very cool! I think it’s difficult to capture cheese well in photo, but I’m a newbie. I’d love to hear some advice on how to take good cheese photos. For now, I use the macro mode and lots of lighting.

    1. cheesemaster says:

      Hi SICA! Good lighting, an SLR camera, and nice props are what we recommend for taking great cheese photos. Here’s a post by Madame Fromage on how she uses props in her cheese photography:

      1. SICA says:

        Nice, thanks!

  3. Maggie says:

    Great article. I can’t remember ever photographing cheese though.

    1. Julia Domenicucci says:

      Thank you! And you’ll have to give it a try sometime 🙂

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