Ever tried to describe a place you visited to someone, and gone on and on about how wonderful it was, only to end up saying something to the effect of, “I guess you’d have to see it to believe it”? It makes sense. After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” as they say. Let’s explore the meaning and history of this popular idiomatic and proverbial expression.
What Does a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words Mean?
As illustrated above, this phrase is used to express that it can be easier to show something in a picture than to describe it by speaking words or using the written word. More specifically, it’s saying that often one single picture can more effectively convey something, or can depict something more vividly and clearly, than a lot of words—and can certainly do so faster. That’s why you may also hear or see the phrase as one picture is worth a thousand words. (It is also often written with a conjunction as a picture’s worth a thousand words.)
For example, it’s often easier to understand how to put a piece of furniture together by looking at pictures or illustrations, or even watching a video, of the necessary steps than it is to read paragraphs of instructions in a manual. Likewise, it’s typically much simpler and quicker to figure out how to get from point A to point B by looking at a map than it is listening to someone tell you or reading about all the turns to make and landmarks to be on the lookout for on your drive.
The History of the Expression
Ironically, it’s going to take quite a few words to explain the etymology of the common phrase. As is often the case with both idioms and proverbs in general, the exact origin of this expression isn’t known.
Similar expressions have been in use since at least the 1700s. In particular, it appears phrases using is worth a thousand words or is worth ten thousand words were common in the 18th and 19th century. For example, the similar phrase one timely deed is worth ten thousand words appeared in The Works of Mr. James Thomson, which is thought to have been originally published some time in the 1760s. (The playwright Henrick Ibsen is credited as saying something very similar in the late 19th century: “A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed.”) Other phrases that can be traced to the 1800s convey that a tear is worth ten thousand words and that a well-understood fact is worth more than a thousand words.
The specific idea that a picture is worth a thousand, or ten thousand, words is thought by some researchers to have first appeared in print in 1862, in the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. A character in the book says: “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.”
However, there’s evidence that others expressed this earlier, and even much earlier. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “A good sketch is better than a long speech,” while Leonardo da Vinci wrote that 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.”
Fast forward to the early 20th century, to 1911 exactly, when the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club held a journalism banquet. In an article in the Syracuse, New York, newspaper The Post-Standard about the event, the journalist quotes a speaker, Tess Flanders, as saying, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.” Others credit the quote to that event but to newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane. Whoever said it, their words were clearly very similar to the expression we know and use today, although not exactly the same.
Shortly after, in 1913, an advertisement for the Piqua Auto Supply House of Piqua, Ohio, used the phrase one look is worth a thousand words.
It’s possible that the exact expression a picture is worth a thousand words first appeared in print in 1918: A newspaper advertisement for the San Antonio Light said:
“One of the Nation’s Greatest Editors Says:
One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
The San Antonio Light’s Pictorial Magazine of the War
Exemplifies the truth of the above statement—judging from the warm
reception it has received at the hands of the Sunday Light readers.”
Still, credit for modern use of the phrase is usually given to Frederick R. Barnard (or Fred R. Barnard), who wrote the phrase in the advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink (sometimes incorrectly written as Printer’s Ink) to promote the use of images in advertisements on the sides of streetcars. In one ad, Barnard called the phrase a Chinese proverb (he later wrote that it was said by a Japanese philosopher), though he didn’t have proof of such an origin. Because of this, sometimes the expression is incorrectly attributed to Confucius. In the same publication, around the same time period, the phrase one look is worth a thousand words can be found.
What Are Idioms and Proverbs?
A picture is worth a thousand words is considered both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Idioms have figurative rather than literal meanings. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Although you might be able to understand the expression a picture is worth a thousand words just by looking at the words that comprise it, if you were to take it purely literally, you’d understand it to mean that a picture is worth or is the same as/equivalent to exactly one thousand words. Of course, now you know that like other idioms, the phrase is used more figuratively, to convey the notion that an image can often more effectively and more succinctly say something than lots of words can (with lots not being defined as a specific number).
Proverbs are short, common phrases or sayings that impart advice or share a universal truth. Interestingly, some people debate the truth of the above statement, with many arguing that the use of both images and words is the best way to get something across. Proverbs are also called adages, aphorisms, and maxims. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Discover many more idioms and proverbs here.<H2>Summary<H2>
The idiomatic and proverbial expression a picture is worth a thousand words is used to convey that a picture, or image, or graphic illustration may better convey or describe something than many written or spoken words—that it may be easier, and much faster, to just show someone something than to tell them about it. Although its exact origins are unknown, the phrase and the idea it conveys have been around, and remained popular, for quite some time.