Fricassee of Words – Say Cheese!

Fricassee: Meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy.

Fricassee of Words: Musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play, with occasional bits and pieces of kitchen jargon too.

Don’t stir the pot, go fry an egg, two eggs in a basket are better than one hen in the bush… you get the picture by now, and here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to pick at.

158 - 0203 - say cheese

Say Cheese!

Meaning – A photographer’s command to elicit a smile.

The first photographers probably never asked their subjects to “Say cheese!” What they said, rather, was “Watch the Birdie.”

The origins of photography date back to the early 1800’s. In early attempts to capture human subjects, said subjects had to sit still for up to an hour in order for the process of transferring their image onto a light-sensitive surface to take place. Props were used to help people sit or stand still for long periods of time and as novel as the new imaging device was, saying “cheese” to produce a smile was probably the farthest thing from their minds. In fact, it did not even occur to people to smile at all.

However, photographers were concerned with having their subjects face the camera, so they devised animated props in the likeness of birds, which they held up next to the camera as they instructed their subjects to “Watch the birdie.” This was a puppet of sorts, meant to capture the attention and keep people facing in the right direction.

No cheese yet and as you might imagine there is no connection whatsoever between the command, “Say cheese,” and cheese. This is, however, one fascinating example of the creative use of words to alter facial expression. As such, it is unprecedented.

We can shed further light on the true reason for the choice of words in this particular instance by considering its counterpart in other languages. Take French, for example. The French instruct their photo subjects to say, “Souris,” which means “mouse.” Both words have a common effect on facial muscles: they pull the corners of the mouth back and open the lips to show the teeth… Voilà! A smile.

As we write this, we pause to do exactly what you are doing this very moment, that is, to practice saying “cheese” in order to gain full awareness of the mechanics of this word and that, indeed, it causes the face to shift in the exact manner that produces a smile. Then, like you right now, we take the experiment one step further by attempting to come up with another word that might procure the same result, but in vain. Cheese it is.

The first recorded instance of the words, “Say cheese!” can be found in a 1943 article appearing in The Big Spring Daily Herald, Texas. The title reads: Need To Put On A Smile? Here’s How: Say ‘Cheese.'” The article proceeds to share a novel public image trick from former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E. Davies. He explains that one may appear cheerful and of good disposition in all situations simply by remembering this simple trick: quietly say, “cheese.”

The rest, as they say, is history, one that paved the way to another cheese-related expression: “cheesy.” Over time, following the ambassador’s confession regarding the secret of his photogenic smile, many referred to the smiles on photographs (and on politicians) as being “cheesy,” meaning “lacking in sincerity.”

Footnote: Remember that while people who say cheese may not truly feel like smiling, not all smiles begin with cheese. Many are spontaneous, and genuine.

Read More Fricassee of Words Articles

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