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Why Do We Say "Cheese" When We're Having Our Photo Taken?

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We're not sure when or where a photographer first asked his or her subjects to state the name of the delicious dairy product, but we do know that when you say "cheese," the corners of your mouth turn up, your cheeks lift and your teeth show. It looks like a smile, and since smiling is what we do in pictures, the instruction seems pretty practical.

The deeper question, then, is: why is a smile the default expression for photographs? In her 2005 essay "Why We Say 'Cheese': Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography," Christina Kotchemidova, an associate professor at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, puts forth an interesting hypothesis that deserves a look.

Picture-perfect smiles weren't always the norm, says Kotchemidova. Photos in the 19th century were ruled by stony, solemn faces. These early photos took their cues from traditional European fine art portraiture, where smiles were only worn by peasants, children, and drunks. The etiquette and beauty standards of the time also called for a small, tightly controlled mouth. At one London photo studio, the precursor to "say cheese" was actually "say prunes," to help sitters form a small mouth.

Then, sometime in the twentieth-century, the smile became king, ruling over snapshots with an iron fist.

Prior studies of the smile in photography, Kotchemidova says, relate its rise to "the speedy camera shutter, attractive faces in media and politics, and the rise of dental care," technological and cultural factors that may have begun a process of "mouth liberalization." Kotchemidova, though, proposes that we look at smiling for the camera as a cultural construction of twentieth-century American snapshot photography.

Photography was once a pursuit for the rich. A the turn of the century, though, Kodak's $1 Brownie camera (introduced in 1900), combined with their line of how-to books and pamphlets for photographers and their heavy advertising in prominent national magazines (these were the days when everyone read Life), created a mass market for photography and established the company as the leading expert on the subject. Kodak came into a position of what Kotchemidova calls "cultural leadership," by framing the way photography, for which they supplied the technology, was conceptualized and used in the culture at large.

In its leadership role, Kodak marketed photography as fun and easy. The company's slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest," assured consumers that the hard work, developing the film and printing the photos, was left to Kodak technicians, and that taking snapshots was easy enough for anyone. Kodak's ads and photography publications presented taking photos as a happy experience for both the photographer and the subject that served to preserve fond memories of good times. One way that message was communicated was plenty of smiling faces on happy consumers, which conveniently provided "a model for how subjects should look," that quickly spread along with the adoption of the technology.

Kotchemidova concludes that Kodak's position of leadership in the culture of photography and their saturation of the ads, magazines and their own publications with images of smiling faces allowed the company to define the standards and aesthetics of good snapshots, and smiling for the camera became the cultural norm.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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