Is a Picture Really Worth a Thousand Words?

Is a Picture Really Worth a Thousand Words?

Sep 2, 2019

Is a thousand words even a lot?

Since I was a kid, I have always been told that a picture is worth a thousand words.  I haven’t spent any time thinking about it, at least not until now, since I’ve never really thought about contemplating it.  When you write blog articles, or do any kind of copywriting, there’s almost always a stipulation about the word count;  Ssme writers get paid by the word, some articles require you to have a minimum number of words, and some articles cap the writer at a maximum number of words.

Words, to me, are those crazy things that paint living pictures in the mind.  I am the type that prefers to read the book over seeing the movie in nearly every case.  I realize that it is entirely possible that I should be referenced as crazy, but I am not in the least bothered by that thought either.

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I did a quick search for “picture is worth a thousand words”, and frankly, there is a shit ton of results.  Check this out, there’s just no way that Google is lying to me:

About 56,200,000 results (0.58 seconds)

That’s a lot of results for just a thousand words, or am I overreacting here?  I mean what do you really get out of a thousand words?  Can you accurately depict something just with words in such a specific number, or do you need more, or maybe less, words to be correct?  Haha, that’s right, I’m sitting around trying to figure out how to use exactly 1,000 words in this article, just to see if I can do it and if so, what can I say, how long will it take me to figure out how to end it properly, and how much editing will be on tap to get it to square up correctly at the exact figure.

What’s the real story here anyway?

After perusing the first page of search results (yes, I did actually scroll to the bottom of page one!), I decided to check out an article on Grammarist about the phrase and its history and meaning.  Yes, I know what it means, that’s a given, but the blurb said the saying wasn’t likely as old as people think so that caught my eye.

Uh oh.

While the phrase a picture is worth a thousand words has been labeled as a Chinese proverb and attributed to the philosopher, Confucius, in fact it is an American expression.

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So all these years we’ve been passing this expression off as some long running foreign import when it’s really just a plain Jane expression from the heartland?  Oh yikes, how did this happen?  Turns out this guy named Fred Barnard filched the expression from a newspaper editor and ran with it – often going so far as to say that a picture was worth TEN THOUSAND words.  Ad men in the 1920s, what a sense of inflation they seemed to have going for them.

Is the picture worth more to the story if Rembrandt drew it than if your neighbors kid did?

Obviously the picture’s going to be worth more if Rembrandt drew it than your kid, unless you happen to be Whistler’s mother, for instance, but the interesting part of this little ditty – at least in the modern age – is that we’ve moved many, many steps in the direction of using images to convey thoughts, as opposed to sentences or even individual words.

In case you have zero idea what I’m talking about, just look around the screen you are reading my particular one thousand ones on, and you will see what I mean.

Icons!  Avatars!  Vector illustrations!  The proliferation of single images designed to convey a thought, an instruction, a direction on the page, has been increasing over the past decade – mostly since the advent of the smartphone as we know it.

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It’s pretty obvious why we have gone the route of icons if you think about it.  With very limited space on smaller screens, it’s difficult to impart to the reader all that many specifics in words and still have room on the page for actual content.  But if you use an icon to signify a meaning, then you’ve only used a single character width, or a tiny little piece of on-screen real estate, to get across an idea that might have taken you a sentence or more to sum up and state without the icon to do the job.

I am also not sure that there have ever been more pictures for sale than there are currently.  Whether we are talking stock at the local art fair or the mind boggling number of online galleries, craft stores and design component sites that are selling imagery, it’s exponentially more than at any other time in history.  If you think about Instagram, the capsule history of the platform’s success is sharing images with other people that you likely don’t even know.

This proliferation of images isn’t always for the best.

Hahaha, no.  When done well, images can certainly bring a thousand words to the mind of a viewer, but when done poorly it becomes an embarrassing moment for everyone involved, and there is nothing worse, at least in my view of it, than an image that relies on words or type with a misspelling.

Have a look at this screenshot.  I was doing a search for “golden gate bridge” for another project that I’m working on…  do you see them?  (there are two of them!) Who in the HELL does the proofreading around the place? I’m gobsmacked.


Oops, thousand words spelled wrong


Holy hieroglyphics, Batman!

That’s right, Robin.  Entirely crazy that we end up looking at gaffes like these, since the mental picture they paint is like a thousand curse words…


and this makes one thousand words.

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