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What Does "a Picture Is worth a Thousand Words" Mean?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is used to talk about metaphorical ideas of value; generally, it means that more information can be conveyed with a picture or image than with a whole lot of text. This phrase can be used in many similar ways to talk about relative value, but for many, it is most commonly used in a discussion of media, as an actual comparison between different visual and text forms.

Many language experts believe that the phrase originated in America in the 1920s. Certain magazines included this phrase, and according to some historians, falsely attributed it to Asian sources, most notably, to the philosopher Confucius. It seems that the true origin of this phrase was within American society, and that it was built on a larger societal trend of using this kind of comparison to indicate value. For example, those who study early American newspapers and other literature point out that many people were in the habit of saying that various things were worth “a thousand words.”

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

It’s also interesting to note that, in many uses of the phrase in the 1920s, the actual number cited varies. While some instances used the standard number, others are written “a picture is worth ten thousand words.” This variance shows how he phrase was likely built by popular usage over time.

Some of those who study contemporary culture and media find an interesting correlation in the use of the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” to a new shift in the popularity of media formats. It seems that, with the invention of easily recorded, transported, and viewed digital image formats, the overall “print media” cedes more and more ground to visual forms of communication including television, cinema, and video streamed through the Internet. By contrast, as newspapers around the world cut their newsroom staffs, various magazines close their doors, and electronic readers take over readership from traditional printed volumes, print media in general seems to be on the decline, or at least to be in transition, in many areas of the world.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books