Why Do We “Say Cheese” When Taking Pictures?

“Say papaya!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Looking great in photos is an art form in itself. The angle, the lighting, the tilt of your head—all of it can determine that picture-perfect moment. And whether you’re eight years old or 80, you can usually count on one classic command before the camera clicks: “Say cheese!” Odds are, you will respond with a cheeky smile and the word, “Cheese!”

But taking a photo—or smiling in one, for that matter—has nothing to do with this tasty dairy product. So, why do we use this phrase in the first place?

The idea of “cheesing” in photos first appeared around the 1940s. The Big Spring Herald, a local Texas newspaper, printed an article that referenced the phrase in 1943. While no one knows for certain who came up with it or why, most believe the word itself obliges you to smile. The “ch” sound causes you to clench your teeth, and the long “ee” sound parts your lips, making a facial expression that resembles a grin. Here are some more origins of common phrases we use all the time.

Granted, we haven’t always bared our pearly whites for the camera. Back in the 19th century, only children, peasants, and drunks smiled in photographs; everyone else kept their faces neutral, which was considered attractive and dignified at the time.

That’s not the only reason people didn’t smile for photos, though. For one, it took several hours (or days!) for cameras to capture the photograph in the first place. As you can imagine, it’s tough to stay still for that long, let alone hold a grin. What’s more, dental hygiene was not a priority back in the day, and most people didn’t want to show off a mouth full of missing or broken teeth. Check out these ten tricks to look better in your own photos.

Photographs were also expensive, meaning the average person only sat for one or two photos in their lifetime. Because this was such an important occasion, each person was on his or her best behavior—hence the somber expressions.

No matter the original reason for these serious-looking photos, the trend didn’t last for long. The invention of Kodak’s $1 camera in the 1900s, along with the rise of the Hollywood movie industry, allowed more and more “everyday” moments to be captured on film. Thus, smiling in photographs became the norm—and so did saying “cheese.” Now that you know why we do that, find out the explanations of 30 more little things you’ve always wondered about.

[Sources: TodayIFoundOut, Mental Floss]

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Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a researcher at PBS FRONTLINE in Boston, Massachusetts, and writes regularly about travel, health, and culture news for Reader’s Digest. Previously she was a staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her articles have also appeared on MSN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance, among other sites. She earned a BA in international relations from Hendrix College. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeTNelson.