Glossary Home Idioms

A picture is worth a thousand words

“A picture is worth a thousand words” suggests that a picture contains far more in its colors and content than 1,000 words ever could.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a common, useful idiom that’s used by English speakers all over the world. Its origins are literary in nature and far easier to pin down than many other popular sayings with histories dating back to the 1600s or 1700s. This idiom is also one of the easiest to understand if one has not heard it before or is new to the English language. With some thought, the definition and use of the phrase are clear. 

A picture is worth a thousand words idiom


“A picture is worth a thousand words” Meaning

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is used to suggest that pictures or illustrations contain far more in its colors, forms, textures, and content than 1,000 words ever could.

While words convey one idea, the use of images has the capacity to convey multiple at the same time while also engaging the viewer on a different level. The phrase is sometimes used in journalism when someone wants to convey meaning through a cover photo. 

When to Use “A picture is worth a thousand words” 

“A picture is worth a thousand words” can be used in almost any conversation. While most idioms are usually confined to use with family, friends, and close colleagues, this idiom is more easily used in any kind of situation. One might use it in order to allude to the complexity of a piece of art, a photograph of a war-torn country, or one of a peaceful scene.

The phrase has appeared in books, television shows, and films, often used to convey something deeper than what’s at the surface. For example, if the camera in a television series pans over to a photograph of a couple recently revealed to have passed away or if the writer uses the phrase in dialogue when a character is talking about an image they found. A long speech can accomplish a lot, but not as much as a good picture can.

Example Sentences

  • You know what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. 
  • Have you seen this image of Anna? A picture really is worth a thousand words. 
  • I’ve never understood the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” 
  • All I want is for my images to be worth at least a thousand words. 
  • Every photographer wants their image to be worth a thousand words if not more. 
  • The best kind of comedy always remembers that a picture is worth a thousand words.


Why Do Writers Use the Idiom?

Writers use “a picture is worth a thousand words” in dialogue in any form of writing, from poetry to plays. By using this idiom, as well as many others, they depend on readers to know what it means and get something out of it that couldn’t be conveyed in another way.

When someone doesn’t understand an idiom or any other kind of colloquialism, the use is likely purposeless. If a writer does use the phrase, such as in the dialogue between two characters, they open up the reader’s mind to what those “words” are. For example, if a character looks at a photo and uses this phrase, readers will likely have to fill in the gaps. What is the character thinking about? What does the picture convey that’s not purely on the surface? 

Writers also consider the phrase’s meaning when they are deciding on book jackets or the image/s that are going to appear on the front of a book. They have to choose wisely so that readers are interested in engaging with their story.

Consider, for example, a newspaper article or social media post, or even an agency’s ads. In all of these instances, the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” can apply.

Origins 

“A picture is worth a thousand words” originates with the famed Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. He was quoted saying the following: 

A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed.

It’s clear that this quote portrays much of what the idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” does today. It was plagiarized, rearranged, and paraphrased into the idiom we know it as today in the early 1900s. In 1911, the quote appeared in The Post-Standard, mostly recognizably as: 

Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words. 

Another version of the phrase was used in an advertisement in a newspaper in 1913 and again in another advertisement in 1918. Today, scholars attribute the popularization of the phrase to Fred R. Barnard, who used it in Printers’ Ink, a trade journal. He promoted the use of advertising images on the sides of streetcars. Several of the ads used phrases like “One look is worth a thousand words” and “One picture worth ten thousand words.” At this point, the history was muddier than it is today, and it was generally believed to be a Chinese proverb attributed to Confucius. 

FAQs

Why do people use “a picture is worth 1,000 words?”

People use “a picture is worth 1,000 words” when they want to admire how impactful an image is or encourage someone to delve into the image for meaning rather than requiring words to understand something.

What are the origins of “a picture is worth 1,000 words?”

“A picture is worth 1,000 words” originated with the famed Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. He was quoted saying the following: A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed.”

What does “a picture is worth 1,000 words” mean?

This idiom refers to how impactful a single image can be. So much so that one would need 1,000 words to accomplish the same thing that the picture does by just existing.

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