Say cheese! How to capture smiles on camera around the world
When the lens cap comes off, the ritual to say cheese! and grin as the camera clicks has become second nature. Saying the word cheese, with its elongated ‘e’ sound, is supposed to turn the curves of our mouths upwards into a toothy grin, ensuring that everyone in the photo looks happy in that particular moment. But why is it specifically the word cheese that is used and not something else? What about in other languages – do they borrow the English word cheese or do other countries have their own magic smiling word?
While you might think of the expression say cheese as a fairly recent language development, along with terms like cheesy grin, the first known account of the term being used in this photography sense actually dates back to at least the 1940s. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an article from 1943 in The Mansfield News, an Ohio-based newspaper, relating the story of a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union who ‘discovered the formula while having his own picture taken… Just say ‘Cheese’. It’s an automatic smile.’
Say cheese! went on to become an international export, either maintaining its original English form, being translated into the local word for cheese, or taking on a new variation, like ‘chīzu’ (チーズ) in Japanese. Find out what they say in other countries around the world!
Getting your photo taken in Germany comes with plenty of options, and while ‘käsekuchen’, meaning cheesecake, is probably closest to the English variation, there are some more creative expressions, like ‘ameisenscheisse’, which translates as ant shit, and the more family-friendly spaghetti, borrowed from Italian.
France clearly has more than enough cheese in the day-to-day as the go-to word for smiling in photos is ‘ouistiti’, which means marmoset.
The Spanish draw smiling inspiration from food, taking the humble potato, the ‘patata’, a staple in Spanish cuisine, in the place of ‘cheese!’. However, it’s an odd choice, since it doesn’t form the mouth into a smiley shape, which is why some locals get creative with funny alternatives – like ‘pis’, with a long ‘i’.
Catalans get their laughs from the male name ‘Lluis’, which does a similar job to the English cheese, since it shares similar vowels that make you smile.
Italians keep things simple, by either using the English word cheese or by opting for ‘sorridi’, as an instruction meaning smile.
Latin American Spanish switches the sober ‘patata’ for the more adventurous (and smile inducing) ‘whiskey’, with the instruction ‘diga whiskey’, meaning ‘say whiskey!’.
Mandarin Chinese speakers usually get you to say cheese by saying eggplant, ‘qiézi’ (茄子), which sounds very similar to cheese and has the same smiling effect. In Taiwan, the word seven, ‘qī’ (七) is used. However, if you want to see those smiles on camera in Hong Kong, just say one two three, ‘yāt yim sàam’ (一 二 三).
In Japan, ‘hai, chiizu!’ (はい、チーズ!), derives from the English say cheese, but there is another cute variant, where the photographer says 1+1 in Japanese, to which the person(s) being photographed answer with two, ‘ni’ (二) in Japanese.
In South Korea, ‘Kimchi’, a spicy fermented cabbage dish, is not just a culinary staple, but one that is used for making people smile on camera. ‘Kimchi’ has the right vowels to shape the mouth into a toothy grin, making it an ideal Korean alternative to cheese.
India is a country with 22 official languages, but since English is widely spoken, it’s unsurprising that cheese is still commonly used when it comes to taking photos. However, in Hindi, it’s quite common to start saying ‘paneer’ (पनीर), the Hindi word for a local cottage cheese when posing for a photo. However, other Indian languages just instruct you to smile, like the Tamil ‘siri’ (சிரி) or laughter in Telagu, ‘navvu’ (నవ్వు).
Bulgarians also draw their smiling inspiration from food, saying ‘zele’ (Зеле), which means cabbage.
The English word cheese has become popular in Russia, as well as the Russian word ‘seer’ (сыр) which also means cheese. Say raisins, ‘skazhi izyum’ (Скажи изюм), is another way to get Russians smiling in your pictures.
The word for the fruit orange, ‘appelsin’, gets the Danes grinning.
Hungarians play with the sound cheese, with the word ‘csíz’, which phonetically sounds the same as the English but is actually a Eurasian siskin, a small type of bird. ‘Bicikli’ or ’vízibicikli’, meaning bicycle or water bicycle, are also becoming more commonly used in Hungary.
Czechia and Slovakia
In Czechia and Slovakia, the local word for cheese, ‘sýr’, is also used when taking photos, but sometimes a simple, smile – ‘usměv’ – will do.
When in Iceland, if you have a little difficulty getting your mouth around ‘Segðu sís!’, say ‘sís’, which apparently has no meaning – just the sound ‘sís’ gets you smiling on camera.
When in Sweden, you’ll want to say omelette instead of cheese, ‘Säg omelett!’ But you can also say ‘snigel fiss’, meaning snail fiss, to get a bit of laughter on camera.