“A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words” – Phrase Origin

“A picture is worth 1000 words” is an idiom that has been tossed around for over a hundred years. This phrase implies that people are much more likely to remember something they’ve seen in an image than something they’ve read in words. So, where did it originate from?

The phrase “a picture is worth 1000 words” is widely believed to originate from a 1921 article by Frederick R. Barnard in a trade magazine called Printer’s Ink. However, the closest version of this exact idiom comes from a training speech given by Arthur Brisbane in 1911.

To discover the true origin of this widely used phrase, we must go further back in time. Variations of the phrase have been in use for centuries, as you’re about to learn.

The History and Original Form of the Phrase “A Picture is Worth 1000 Words”

“A picture is worth 1000 words” is one of those sayings that has been molded and shaped over many years to become what it is today. It’s a phrase that can have many interpretations, from the literal interpretation of being able to convey more information in one image than in a thousand words to the figurative meaning of being able to capture an emotion or experience with just one photograph.

This phrase has been used countless times by people around the world who recognize its power and appreciate what it can do for them visually. Here are a few examples:

  • Author James Thomson wrote in the late 18th century, “One timely deed is worth ten thousand words.”
  • In 1808, playwright Charles Breck wrote, “That tear, good girl, is worth ten thousand words.”
  •  French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte was quoted saying, “A good sketch is better than a long speech.”

All of these examples may be considered the original form of the phrase. As with most idioms, tracking down its source is probably better left to those with the talent of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.

The very oldest roots of the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” go back 2,500 years. A proverb attributed to Confucius goes, “Hearing something a hundred times isn’t better than seeing it once.”

Can Words Be More Expressive Than Pictures?

There’s truth in the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Seeing a wrecked train, a bomb going off, or the after-effects of a tsunami certainly lowers the jaw much further than words can do.

To assert the superiority of pictures over words, Leonardo da Vinci once wrote about poets, saying, “A poet would be overcome by sleep and hunger before [being able to] describe with words what a painter is able to [depict] in an instant.”

Perhaps da Vinci was referring to bad poets. Good poets begin with a picture in their mind, which creates a feeling, which creates a poem.

Literature has been a powerful source of communication for centuries, often carrying far more emotion and understanding than any image could.

Take this 1896 segment from A.H. Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

These segments don’t use drawings or photos to convey emotion. They’re just words written from a poet’s memory of a better place. And with as little as 46 words (not even a thousand!), the poet induces the reader with feelings in much the same way a picture would.

Next, we have this piece from W.H. Auden about losing a dear friend:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” has a lot of merit. It accurately captures how images can evoke emotion and convey complex ideas in an instant. However, I could not bear to let the saying fly too high, considering there are still instances where written words are far more expressive than pictures.

The Power of Pictures: Instant Gratification

We live in a world where there is no time for patience or consideration; we want things done quickly and efficiently. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” fits neatly in this context.

If you ask someone, “Do you like to read?” Their answer is likely to come in the guise of lamentation for time they no longer have. People prefer pictures over words because we’re not accustomed to slowing down. We crave instant gratification through pictures that say a thousand words in a matter of seconds. 

Pictures provide that instant gratification quite well indeed. The root of our proverb stems from this fact.

For example:  If I were to write a book about the dangers of freediving, you, the reader, are committed to about 300 pages of text detailing why the sport exists beneath a certain shadow of lethality. OR…I could show you a short series of pictures of drowned freedivers, accompanied by brief captions describing their demise.

Gruesome? Yes. Effective? Absolutely.

Not that “a picture is worth a thousand words” need not always depict the grim. A photo of today’s baseball game with the final score beneath it also demonstrates the phrase’s ability to cut to the chase.

The origin of any popular phrase, including today’s, comes about because it is so exact and spot on that to ignore it is almost impossible. But I do find it rather ironic that words are used — at least in this case — to describe how powerful a picture is.

Let us delve even deeper into how pictures say more than words and thus provide the phrase’s misty origins with the more solid ground upon which to stand.

When Pictures Say More Than Words

The origin of today’s saying is as fleeting as smoke from an intellectual’s pipe. Yet it lingers with the origins of other popular phrases, never to dissipate. Many examples of the phrase’s popularity exist.

Propaganda

Napoleon Bonaparte used the power of words in his speech along with a great deal of propaganda in the form of pictures hung all over town. One picture came with a brief phrase underneath to deliver a strong message or sell an opinion.

Propaganda has been around for almost as long as the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been spoken. Indeed, propaganda tends to reflect the phrase’s power, as it often does its work through pictures rather than words. 

Ads

In the 1920s, auto company Jordan captured audiences with a number of wordy ads. It worked for them, though this strategy is by no means the norm.

Ads come at their target hard and fast, proving that while the origin of “a picture is worth a thousand words” goes back a long way, its wisdom endures.

Photographs

And then we have regular photographs, each esoteric, their message meant for a specific few. Esoteric but no less powerful. Think of how pictures from a family album impact members of that family.

I can sit here and write about how your children were in their youth or let you flip through a photo album rife with images from the past. Which method is more likely to breach the heart? I can write about how New York City used to look in the 1970s or show you some old Kodachrome pictures of Broadway and 22nd street. Which would you prefer?

They may have started a long time ago, but phrases like the one in question today live on due to their effectiveness as well as their honesty.

Conclusion

The true origin of “a picture is worth a thousand words” may never be known. The clues we’ve uncovered shall have to suffice, as does a photograph when the heart’s longing to feel overtakes the mind’s desire to analyze.

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