They say “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but what does that actually mean? And where did the expression come from?

Here at GumGum, where we routinely celebrate the power of images, we thought it would be fun to explore the origin of this often-used phrase. And we were surprised to learn it has actually been attributed to several sources throughout the years.

A picture is worth a thousand words

“One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words,” appears in a 1913 newspaper advertisement for the Piqua Auto Supply House of Piqua, Ohio, but ironically uses only words, not images, to invite prospective customers to see its products in their store.

We’ve come to accept “a picture is worth a thousand words” as truth in our culture because of the ability of a photo to quickly convey so much meaning with so little, if any, explanation. But in the age of social media and cameras on mobile devices, when photos are shared with more regularity than ever, does the powerful ability of a single image to convey so much feeling, information and complexity get taken for granted?

Perhaps a look back at the earliest known uses of the phrase will remind us of the specialness of the photos we share.

One of the earliest known references to the expression is from a 1911 newspaper article in which newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane, speaking about journalism and publicity, says “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

A similar phrase, “One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words,” appears in a 1913 newspaper advertisement for the Piqua Auto Supply House of Piqua, Ohio, but ironically uses only words, not images, to invite prospective customers to see its products in their store.

It is believed the modern use of the phrase stems from an article in the December 8, 1921 issue advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink, in which Fred R. Barnard referred to “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words” to promote the use of images in advertisements on the sides of streetcars.

A later ad by Barnard appears in the March 10, 1927 issue with the phrase “One Picture Worth Ten Thousand Words,” which he erroneously credited as being a Chinese proverb so people would take it more seriously. As a result, the expression is also sometimes mistakenly attributed to Confucius.

Whatever the origin of the phrase, the next time you share or receive a powerful photo, take a minute to appreciate its uncanny ability to convey one thousand words, or more.

Ophir & GumGum NY

Winnie and Vincent smile wide while manning the GumGum booth at the Digiday Brand Conference in September 2012, as GumGum CEO Ophir Tanz shares a “moment of zen” in preparation for his huge presentation.

How many words could you use to express this photo?

A thousand? Ten thousand? One word?

Let us know by replying below!