'A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 28, 2023

Have you ever tried to explain something to someone, and they just weren't getting it? Then the idiom 'A picture is worth a thousand words' might come in handy! In this article, you'll learn what it means, its origins, and how to use it.

The short version is:

  • 'A picture is worth a thousand words' is a way of saying that showing someone a picture can be a more effective way of explaining something than using words. 

What Does 'A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words' Mean?

Many people are visual learners, but even those who aren't can benefit from an illustrated version of a complex idea. Take, for example, instruction manuals; they usually come with a picture or diagram or some sort of visual support to help you figure out how to use or build the item.

That's the idea that the idiom 'A picture is worth a thousand words' conveys. It means you can tell an entire story with just one picture and impart a concept or idea much more effectively.

The dictionary defines it as follows:

used to say that it is often easier to show something in a picture than to describe it with words

Imagine, for instance, that you were putting together a presentation for your team about the organization's progress over the last quarter.

Your colleague might say to you:

You should add in some graphs and charts. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Some variants of the expression include:

  • A picture is worth ten thousand words.
  • One picture is worth ten thousand words.
  • One picture is worth a thousand words.

Where Does 'A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words' Come From?

This expression has been around for a long time and is used in many countries worldwide. But where does it originate from? Here's what we know.

An Advertising Tool

The idiom in this specific form is attributed to Arthur Brisbane during a Syracuse Advertising Men's Club banquet in 1911. Rumor has it they got together to discuss the best marketing techniques, and Brisbane is known to have said:

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

The event and this quote were documented in the Post-Standard newspaper and advertising trade journal Printers' Ink.

Later, Fred R. Barnard used the phrase 'One picture is worth ten thousand words.' in a Printers' Ink 1921 issue to promote the use of pictures on advertisements on streetcars (old school trams).

A Chinese Proverb

It was commonly believed for some time (and probably still is by some now) that this idiom is actually a Chinese proverb and was attributed to the famous philosopher Confucius. But there's actually a straightforward explanation.

Remember Barnard, the guy who promoted the use of pictures in ads on streetcars? Yeah, that guy. He also put out another ad in the Printer's Ink six years later, where he wrote 'One Picture Worth Ten Thousand Words' and labeled it a Chinese proverb.

It was later revealed that he lied about this so that people would take it seriously. So it's confirmed this is definitely not a Chinese proverb.

Earlier Variants

While this specific adaptation of the phrase was popularized in modern times, other versions meaning the same thing were used long before that. It's such a popular message that there are too many to list here, but I'll show you some poignant examples.

As far back as the 15th or 16th century, Leonardo also expressed this idea in one of his notebooks—possibly in his "Codex Atlanticus," a collection of his writings and drawings. The specific date of when he wrote this quote may not be available, as his notebooks were filled with various ideas, sketches, and observations over a long period. However, Leonardo da Vinci lived from 1452 to 1519, and his notebooks contain writings from throughout his life. He said something along the lines of:

A poet would be overcome by sleep and hunger before being able to describe with words what a painter is able to depict in an instant."

In 1861, Russian writer Ivan Turgenev wrote:

The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.

At one point, even Napoleon Bonaparte had a go at it and said (translated from French):

A good sketch is better than a long speech.

In Ivan S. Turgenev's 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, one of his characters says:

The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning and origin of the phrase, let's check out some examples where this idiom is used in sentences:

While on vacation, we saw such amazing sunsets; it really made me realize that a picture is worth a thousand words.

The documentary used striking images of the wildlife to convey its message, proving that a picture is worth a thousand words.

You use a lot of smart words but a picture is worth a thousand words.

Her facial expression, captured in that photograph, told a story that words could never fully convey—a true example of how a picture is worth a thousand words.

The artist's painting of a field of flowers was so evocative that it demonstrated the age-old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Instead of describing the scene in detail, I showed them the picture, as I knew a picture is worth a thousand words.

You can tell many tales with words but a picture is worth a thousand words.

The infographic in the presentation summarized the data beautifully, proving that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

The marketing team decided to proceed with using a captivating image in their ad campaign, knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words in grabbing people's attention.

As a travel blogger, she always relied on stunning photos to illustrate her adventures, believing that a picture is worth a thousand words. 

Other Ways to Say 'A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words'

There are other ways to express the fact that a picture explains something better than words.

Here are some of them:

  • A picture paints a thousand words.
  • Every picture tells a story.
  • It's better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.
  • Seeing once is better than hearing twice.
  • Show, don't tell.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this famous saying. To summarize, to say that a picture is worth a thousand words is to say that a picture is often a more effective way of conveying a message than using words.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!   

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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