Charles Timoney gives the would-be traveller in France some sage advice in his, Pardon my French: Unleash your Inner Gaul published in 2008. Excerpted below is one of his finds:
Should you ever be asked by a French person to take their photo in front of some famous monument somewhere, there is no point in pointing their camera at them and saying brightly, “Say cheese!” For a start, if you stand in front of a mirror and say cheese with a silly French accent, it will not produce the photogenic rictus that you were hoping for. The main problem, however, is that a French tourist will not be expecting to be asked to say “cheese” because in France,when being photographed, people say “ouistiti!” Like “cheese,” the success of the photograph depends on the accent used when saying the word. If you sayouitsiti – it means “marmoset,” by the way [a very small monkey from Central & S. America – The D.] – in a flat English accent reminiscent of the cartoon dog Droopy [?], you will look thoroughly miserable in the photo. If, on the other hand, you say it enthusiastically in a strong French accent, the two last syllables force your mouth sideways into a broad grin. Just in case you are planning on asking a French person to take your photo one day, there is a slight chance that in place of ouistiti he may let his fondness for things culinary win through and ask you to say “omelette!”
Well, now, with this suggestion before me, I set to work attempting to find confirmation for “Ouistiti!” as an authentic and viable French expression.
I chanced upon a father and son from Nice, France, who came into my line at work. I asked them if anyone ever says “Ouistiti!” when they take a picture and they both laughed and said, “Non.” They told me that Ouistiti is a big yellow monkey cartoon character (which others confirmed but of whom I could never find a good photo). When I inquired as to the for-realz picture taking exclamation they told me that, “Smell the little birds coming out!” was in fact the more acurate phrase. When pressed, they assured me that this phrase makes you smile wide when you say it.
Later, another woman from Nice indicated that she had heard of neither “Ouistiti!” nor “Smell the little birds coming out!” She did however give me a translation for the phrase and rendered it, “Sont le petite oiseau!” which I can’t for the life of me figure out. (They are? Smell or feel? It’s?) A gut feeling told me not to trust her so I grilled her for her substitute exclamation. But she claimed to have none. “I just take ze piture,” she insisted. Fine.
A third encounter confronted me with a French family from Paris. I duly inquired as to their preferred photo-snapping phrase and the mother couldn’t think of one until I suggested “Ouistiti!” She said that yes, yes, of course, she had heard that one. “But,” she admitted, “I just say ‘cheese’.” So much for Dr. Prof. Timoney’s thinly-veiled Anti-American assertions. She had also never heard of “smell the little birds coming out,” but, to be fair, I didn’t have the French translation in front of me so you can’t expect the crude English version to jog her memory. Cute family though. Makes me wanna be French again.
Finally, though, a fourth encouter with the rare species of European put many things into place. Bruno from the South of France, whom I met at a pajama party claimed that “Non” – ‘Ouistiti’ is in fact a load of merde and that he had never heard it said. (But yes he had heard of the cartoon monkey by the same name.) He gave me no substantive subsitutes that I can recall (it was a party remember) but, fortuitously, our Bruno from the South of France did provide The Dialect with the etymological tip about the birds – le petite oiseau – that we had been in need of. Bruno described the old cameras with the dude that hunkered down underneath the cloth as he fixed the camera just right. The photographer then climbed out from beneath the contraption, all the while admonishing the children to keep their eyes fixed on the camera lens. He told them to keep watching the camera – so you don’t miss the little birds coming out.
Who of our faithful Dialect readers can help us with this simple French quandary? Since we cannot figure out this rudimentary French expression, we are hoping that you can. What’s the French photo-phrase for the little birds? Who uses it, how do you say it, and what does it mean?