“Say cheese!” is probably the most used phrase to say to people posing for photographs, with “Watch the birdie!” coming in second. But why cheese? Is it because it is good for the teeth? It could also be because when we say the word “cheese” it lets us show our pearly whites. But why that word? There are other words in the English dictionary that can give the same result. Words like “bees” or “knees”. It does sound silly but that is because we are not used to using those words in that way. The phrase “Say cheese!” has been used so much that it does not sound weird or funny at all. So where did this phrase come from and how did we associate it with taking photographs?
Exhaustive research was done to find any link between the word “cheese” and its use in the phrase but found nothing significant. It was suggested that it has something to do with the old term “cheese it” which means to run away. But it does not make sense as to why a photographer would tell someone who wants their picture taken to run away. Maybe because of the belief that a camera can capture souls? It still does not add up because asking for your photo to be taken is voluntary and why would photographers jeopardize their business by scaring away customers?
Who Popularized It?
There is no definite evidence but the term might have been coined by a photographer and as of now, there is no way of telling who that is. What we do know is who popularized the term. It is no other than former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies. In a piece from the Texas newspaper The Big Spring Daily Herald, October 1943, titled Need To Put On A Smile? Here's How: Say “Cheese”, he said that in order to have a guaranteed pleasant smile, you just need to say “cheese”. He also said that he got the tip from another politician. People suspected that the politician he was referring to was President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.
So there you have it. It was a politician who popularized the phrase but the origin itself is still unknown. It does not matter though as it is an effective phrase to say if you want to smile in any given situation. It sounds funny saying it, so that also helps.