A picture is worth a thousand words

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1913 newspaper advertisement

"A picture is worth a thousand words" is an English 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.

History[edit]

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 journal Printers' 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" (, 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]

Equivalents[edit]

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."[8] 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.

Disagreement[edit]

Computer programmer and author Fred Brooks makes an opposite statement regarding programming in The Mythical Man-Month: "Show me your flowcharts and conceal your tables, and I shall continue to be mystified. Show me your tables, and I won’t usually need your flowcharts; they’ll be obvious." The phrase has also been spoofed by computer scientist John McCarthy, to make the opposite point: "As the Chinese say, 1001 words is worth more than a picture."[9]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Citations[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) (1949). , Stevenson’s book of proverbs, maxims and familiar phrases. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 2611. Quoted from Ole Bjørn Rekdal (2014). "Academic Citation Practice: A Sinking Sheep?" (PDF). portal: Libraries and the Academy. Johns Hopkins University Press. 14 (4): 575, 577, 578, 584.   see also "The history of a picture's worth". uregina.ca. Retrieved 6 November 2016. contains pictures and transcriptions of the original ads 
  6. ^ Watts, Alan. "The Way of Zen"
  7. ^ Thomas T. Woodson, Introduction to Engineering Design. McGraw-Hill, 1966 - Technology & Engineering – 434 pages
  8. ^ Turgenev, Ivan. "16". Fathers and Sons. Retrieved 29 September 2015. 
  9. ^ McCarthy, John. "The sayings of John McCarthy (1 March 2007)". Archived from the original on 14 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 

Sources[edit]

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