A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Take a look at this.  “Wow, a picture’s worth a thousand words!” You can say that again.  “Wow, a picture’s …..”

I’ve said it. You’ve said it.  Everyone I know has used it sometime or other.

Where did this phrase originate?

A quotation that most likely is a Chinese proverb.  A Confucianism – doubtlessly.

I should have known better.

Two opinions.  Neither has anything to with the exotic notions I’ve entertained for decades as to where this timeless saying has its beginnings.

After reading these explanations, I think that I’ll just keep on believing that it is indeed, an old Chinese proverb.  A mental image that is far more acceptable and imaginative than what I read here.

I’m disappointed.

This is the original advertisement that inspired the quotation, “A Picture Is Worth One Thousand Words.” The quotation is actually phony. The “Chinese” quotation was fabricated by an advertising executive representing a baking soda company. The executive assumed that consumers would be compelled to buy a product that had the weight of Chinese philosophy behind it. A young boy’s smile is equal to many words explaining the benefits of the product. The ad was most often seen as a streetcar card in which customers did not have much time to read ad copy

This is the original “Chinese proverb” from the streetcar advertisement.

The quotation has wrongly been translated as: A Picture Is Worth One Thousand Words.

In fact, the literal translation is: A Picture’s Meaning Can Express Ten Thousand Words.

Somehow the phony Chinese proverb over the years has been given the literal meaning that a picture is equivalent to a thousand words setting up a clash between words and pictures in the minds of users of the two. With digital hegemony, visual messages have reasserted their position as an important communication medium, but at the cost of not recognizing the combination of words and pictures as vital in communication. With the correct interpretation of the proverb, words and pictures live in harmony as they are both used equally in order to understand the meaning of any work that uses them both.

A picture is worth a thousand words


A picture tells a story just as well as a large amount of descriptive text.


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 the text “so said a famous Japanese philosopher, and he was right”. A picture is worth a thousand words

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.”

Complete article here

The Phrase Finder

January 4, 2010 - Posted by | 'Eager to Know' Stories, Too Good to Archive

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