A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Photo: webmink

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Ed Catlett asked:

“People often say ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’  I believe the original quote was actually ‘A picture is worth ten thousand words’ as stated by Fred R. Barnard, of Printers’ Ink, 10 March 1927. Which is correct?”

The standard Fred Barnard story about the origin of this proverb was disproven by The Yale Book of Quotations, which has the following information:

“‘The picture is worth ten thousand words.’  So says ‘an old Chinese proverb.'”
Washington Post, July 26, 1925.  There appears to be no basis for the Chinese attribution.  An earlier version, “A look is worth a thousand words,” appears in a real estate advertisement in the New York Times, May 16, 1914, where the words are followed by “say the Japanese.”  This proverb has long been credited to Frederick Barnard, who used a “look” version in Printer’s Ink, Dec. 8, 1921, and a “picture” version in the same periodical, Mar. 10, 1927.

The YBQ also cross-references to:

“The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.”
Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862) (translation by Constance Garnett)

The forthcoming Yale Book of Modern Proverbs will present still earlier “picture” / “thousand words” versions.

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Don says:

    “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

    Who said it first: Lee Iacocca or Stephen Covey? Or perhaps someone that the internet is not aware of…

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  2. Jeff says:

    “There is nothing worse than a group of ignorant people with a legitamate grievance”


    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  3. Morten says:

    Is that from rage face or what is it from? What does it mean exactly?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  4. mooninlibra says:

    What is origin of a stitch in time saves nine.
    What’s good for the goose is good for the grander.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  5. Kressel says:

    “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

    Huck Finn says a version of it, but I want to know if that’s the first use.

    Also, “It takes a village,” which appears at least conceptually in To Kill A Mockingbird when the missionary lady is horrified that the Africans act like the whole tribe is one family.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Greg Smith says:

    The friendly goodbye phrase “so long” always throws me for a loop. I’ve been told it came from when the Brits were trading in the East Indies and the natives would say ‘Salaam’ which turned into “So Long” when it made its way back to England. Can you confirm this or give me the roots to it! Thanks.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • Tony says:

      I’m pretty sure it’s an Americanism, not common in Britain. But it’s true that this phrase comes from a misinterpretation of a foreign word. In this case, it was the Americans misunderstanding the Irish word “slán,” meaning good-bye. It dates back to the early 1800s, when Americans working alongside Irish immigrants would have heard the farewell expression often.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Esteban says:

    Can you trace the origin of this Ford quote and if it’s really a Henry Ford quote?

    “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – Henry Ford


    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  8. Eric M. Jones says:

    I have absolutely no doubt that some earlier sources can be found, but here is a good one…

    The Mathematics teacher: Volume 14 – Page 262 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Association of Teachers of Mathematics in the Middle States and Maryland, Association of Mathematical Teachers in New England – 1921

    The business man is not only demanding facts in place of guess work, but he is demanding his facts in picture form. Some one has said that a picture is worth a million words; certainly a good chart is worth several pages of written …

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0