Picture Dictionary 1000 Words Essay

"A picture is worth a thousand words" is an English language-idiom. It refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image or that an image of a subject conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does.


The expression "Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words." appears in a 1911 newspaper article quoting newspaper editor Tess Flanders discussing journalism and publicity.[1]

A similar phrase, "One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words", appears in a 1913 newspaper advertisement for the Piqua Auto Supply House of Piqua, Ohio.[2]

An early use of the exact phrase appears in an 1918 newspaper advertisement for the San Antonio Light, which says:

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.[3]

It is believed by some that the modern use of the phrase stems from an article by Fred R. Barnard in the advertising trade journalPrinters' Ink, promoting the use of images in advertisements that appeared on the sides of streetcars.[4] The December 8, 1921, issue carries an ad entitled, "One Look is Worth A Thousand Words." Another ad by Barnard appears in the March 10, 1927, issue with the phrase "One Picture Worth Ten Thousand Words", where it is labeled a Chinese proverb. The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases quotes Barnard as saying he called it "a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously."[5] Nonetheless, the proverb soon after became popularly attributed to Confucius. The actual Chinese expression "Hearing something a hundred times isn't better than seeing it once" (百闻不如一见, p bǎi wén bù rú yī jiàn) is sometimes introduced as an equivalent, as Watts's "One showing is worth a hundred sayings".[6] This was published as early as 1966 discussing persuasion and selling in a book on engineering design.[7] In March 1911, in the Syracuse Advertising Men's Club, Arthur Brisbane wrote: "Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words."[8]


Despite this modern origin of the popular phrase, the sentiment has been expressed by earlier writers. For example, the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev wrote (in Fathers and Sons in 1861), "The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book."[9] The quote is sometimes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, who said "A good sketch is better than a long speech" (French: Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu'un long discours). While this is sometimes translated today as "A picture is worth a thousand words," this translation does not predate the phrase's common use in English.


The phrase has been spoofed by computer scientistJohn McCarthy, to make the opposite point: "As the Chinese say, 1001 words is worth more than a picture."[10]

See also[edit]



  1. ^"Speakers Give Sound Advice". Syracuse Post Standard. page 18. March 28, 1911. 
  2. ^"One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words". Piqua Leader-Dispatch. page 2. August 15, 1913. 
  3. ^"Pictorial Magazine of the War (advertisement)". San Antonio Light. page 6. January 10, 1918. 
  4. ^"The history of a picture's worth". Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  5. ^Stevenson, Burton (1949). Stevenson’s book of proverbs, maxims and familiar phrases. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 2611.   see also "The history of a picture's worth". uregina.ca. Retrieved 6 November 2016.  
  6. ^Watts, Alan. "The Way of Zen"
  7. ^Woodson, Thomas T. (1966) Introduction to Engineering Design. McGraw-Hill Technology & Engineering – 434 pages
  8. ^"The meaning and origin of the expression: A picture is worth a thousand words". The phrase finder. Retrieved March 10, 2017. 
  9. ^Turgenev, Ivan. "16". Fathers and Sons. Retrieved 29 September 2015. 
  10. ^McCarthy, John. "The sayings of John McCarthy (1 March 2007)". Archived from the original on 14 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 


  • The Dictionary of Clichés by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).

Further reading[edit]

1913 newspaper advertisement

A picture is worth a thousand words

What's the meaning of the phrase 'A picture is worth a thousand words'?

A picture tells a story just as well as, if not better than, a lot of written words.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A picture is worth a thousand words'?

This article has 471 words and two pictures - take your pick.
This phrase emerged in the USA in the early part of the 20th century. Its introduction is widely attributed to Frederick R. Barnard, who published a piece commending the effectiveness of graphics in advertising with the title "One look is worth a thousand words", in Printer's Ink, December 1921. Barnard claimed the phrase's source to be oriental by adding "so said a famous Japanese philosopher, and he was right".

Printer's Ink printed another form of the phrase in March 1927, this time suggesting a Chinese origin:

"Chinese proverb. One picture is worth ten thousand words."

The arbitrary escalation from 'one thousand' to 'ten thousand' and the switching from Japan to China as the source leads us to smell a rat with this derivation. In fact, Barnard didn't introduce the phrase - his only contribution was the incorrect suggestion that the country of origin was Japan or China. This has led to another popular belief about the phrase, that is, that it was coined by Confucius. It might fit the Chinese-sounding 'Confucius he say' style, but the Chinese derivation was pure invention.

Many things had been thought to be 'worth ten thousand words' well before pictures got in on the act; for example:

"One timely deed is worth ten thousand words" - The Works of Mr. James Thomson, 1802.

"That tear, good girl, is worth, ten thousand words" - The Trust: A Comedy, in Five Acts, 1808.

"One fact well understood by observation, and well guided development, is worth a thousand times more than a thousand words" - The American Journal of Education, 1858.

The idea that a picture can convey what might take many words to express was voiced by a character in Ivan S. Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons, 1862:

"The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book."

A similar idea was seen very widely in the USA from the early 20th century, in adverts for Doan's Backache Kidney Pills, which included a picture of a man holding his back and the text "Every picture tells a story".

Neither of the above led directly to 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. Who it was that married 'worth ten thousand words' with 'picture' isn't known, but we do know that the phrase is American in origin. It began to be used quite frequently in the US press from around the 1920s onward. The earliest example I can find is from the text of an instructional talk given by the newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane to the Syracuse Advertising Men's Club, in March 1911:

"Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words."

This little essay clocks in at 471 words. Perhaps I should have drawn half a picture instead?


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