Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Episode 133: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 133: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Record Date: November 7, 2021

Air Date: November 24, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take a group of words and try to tell the story from their entry into the English language, to how they are used today.

Dan, have you heard the expression, a picture paints a thousand words? 

There are a few common versions of the phrase including 

A picture paints a thousand words

A picture is worth a thousand words 

A picture is worth ten thousand words 

From the moment I began working in the areas of communications, branding, and public relations I learned firsthand that if you need to get a message out and there isn’t an accompanying visual, your time spent on a project may be nearly pointless. We see it in the numbers as well. Any story, post, flyer, mailer, etc. with a photo or graphic is viewed and engaged with by orders of magnitudes more people. 


This phrase is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as


a picture is worth a thousand words and variants: a picture conveys far more than words. 

-End Quote

Ginger - an AI-powered writing assistant describes the phrase as quote:

“You use the phrase ‘A Picture Paints a Thousand Words’ to indicate that a picture or impression can express a complex idea in the same way a large amount of descriptive text can.

Example of use: “Wow, this photograph really is amazing. A picture paints a thousand words!”

-End quote 

As I researched this expression, I found that until recently, the more commonly used phrase didn’t only contain the word picture or the word paints

Instead there are multiple phrases that describe a variety of things that are worth a thousand words. These include a “look” as in the first attestation found in print.

Provided by the Oxford English Dictionary

From the 1828 work by James Kirke Paulding titled The New Mirror for Travellers; and Guide to the Springs. By an Amateur is the excerpt, quote:

A look, which said as plainly as a thousand words.

-End quote 

Why the word look? 

Oxford English Dictionary tells us the noun look began being used around 1200 with the definition, quote:

The action or an act of looking; an act of directing the eyes or countenance in order to look at someone or something; a glance of the eyes. Also in extended use: an act of contemplating or examining an immaterial or abstract thing. Frequently with at. 

- End quote

That tells us the word look in this sense was around centuries before our phrase appeared in print. But why is it one thousand words? 

Around the same time versions of the phrase began showing up in print, there were numerous ads and articles in newspapers discussing the cost of printing and nearly all are measured in the thousands of words. 

Here is just one example from the American watchman and Delaware advertiser out of Wilmington, Delaware from March 01, 1825. It contains a Notice to Printers, which is essentially an RFP or request for proposal that is used in the United States today to ask for quotes or estimates from companies for a specific job. This particular ad is seeking printers for the Journal of the House of Representatives

It reads quote: 

-End quote

There is no direct evidence for this being the reason, but the value of words measured in the thousands is all over the texts of that time. 

Prior to this, the idea of the phrase was around with many related ideas of certain things being more impactful than words. Let’s look at a few more examples.

The weekly pioneer and Democrat October 11, 1861, edition out of Saint Paul, Minnesota Territory has an encouragement which I think applies beyond religious context. Quote: 

- End quote 

This is interesting to me because it discusses the way we use words and our timing. So it is not to devalue words, but to emphasize the importance of our choices and application of those words.

This next piece from the December 19, 1895 edition of the The Hawaiian star out of Honolulu, Oahu is an interesting nugget from history. It reads, quote: 

-End Quote

In the pioneer press November 01, 1900 edition out of Miller, Hand County, S.D. was this small bit of advice. Quote: 

-End Quote

The Chickasha daily express is a paper out of the Chickasha, Indian Territory, Oklahoma. This is a comic shared in the August 11, 1922 edition. Quote: 

-End Quote

You may be wondering if this is that one thing that made the word picture stick. The answer is no. The popularity of the phrase was bolstered by one of our modern uses, but it was in the lexicon prior to this and was just one of the many versions. 

But, before we get to our modern uses, we’d like to take a short break to say thank you to our sponsors... 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons.

And speaking of our patreon, we’ve added a new tier! They start with our Exclusive Access at $3 a month, which gets you access to our polls and community only discussions, early access to the podcasts, and access to the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. The next tier is the new one, which is $10 a month and gets you original digital artwork from Shauna! Once a month you’ll get exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. And as always, all the perks from previous tiers. Special shout out to Jan for being the first to join the new tier!


At the $15 tier, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez do every episode. Because they are awesome! 

Our $35 tier allows you to make us your personal research machines! Dan and I will research any English phrase for you, up to one a month. Even if we don’t feature it on the show, we’ll send you what we find in a digital show-notes style packet. 


And for the top spot, at $50 a month you can become our one and only Dean of Learning. This tier only has one spot available, so if you claim it you get to be King of the Hill for as long as you want. In addition to all the other perks, you’ll get special mentions as the Top Dog for being such an amazing supporter of this educational artform!

We are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. That’s

Modern Uses

If by Bread was released in 1971 


If a picture paints a thousand words,

Then why can't I paint you? 

The words will never show 

The you I've come to know. 

-End Quote

The next item is from the company JUMP on (well-named domain) JUMP shares it is quote, “The agency of choice for ambitious brands - We create strategic design & digital solutions” -End quote. 

Here are a few excerpts from the blog post A picture paints a thousand words By Robert Brown. 


We were recently commissioned by Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to create a campaign to showcase employment opportunities across the city. Our design team knew that imagery would play a vital role. JUMP’s creative team explain their image-led approach…

-End quote. 

In a later section, Lucy Batley, Creative Director at JUMP is asked, quote:

“Can you explain the importance of good photography in design?”

“I don’t know how many times I say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ to our clients. You can invest in engaging design, carefully crafted written content and seamless user journeys but if your photographic images aren’t up to standard, you are wasting your time and money. The world around us is a visual environment, your brand imagery is one of your most powerful tools to communicate with your audience, yet it is so often an afterthought or worse something that clients try to cut corners with. Everyone has a camera on their mobile phone. Not everyone has the creative eye and skill of a professional photographer.”

-End quote

There is no date listed for the post, but I found social media posts from 2018 and 2019 by Newcastle Hospitals with branding that matches the campaign. 

The photograph A thousand tales by Joanna Lentini is available on Saatchi Art. This is a beautiful image of a road that curves to the right through a scene of misty trees. The title of this work is perfect. I can ask myself questions about this image, but receive no answers and at the same time, I find a multitude of answers. 


As commonly repeated as this phrase may be, the truth of it persists. It is played out during disasters. An entire page of text can fall short in explaining the significance, the weight, that a single photo can convey. 

And this is in moments of triumph. Imagine an athlete - the runner who has just crossed the finish line, in first place, after fighting to finish the race - we experience with them the relief and joy and pain and pride of that moment. 

It is in moments of beauty as well. It may not be the same as experiencing something in person - sometimes it comes close and sometimes it means more. There are paintings that have been viewed by thousands of people over the course of centuries that continue to stir humans souls. Sometimes the mere mention of these works elicits a recurrence of the experience. 

The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci; 1503-1506 

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer; 1665 

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh; 1889 

The Scream, Edvard Munch; 1893 

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt; 1907-08 


That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page! 


Poll time! 

In a recent poll, we asked Patrons which is the most pretentious kitchen gadget?

  1. Smoothie Maker

  2. Asparagus Steamer

  3. Avocado Slicer

  4. Egg Cuber

  5. Strawberry Stem Remover

Side note, the definition of pretentious is: Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed; making an exaggerated outward display; ostentatious, showy. Oxford English Dictionary

It turns out no one was that bothered by the Egg Cuber or Strawberry Stem Remover - or at least not as much as the other three. 

Smoothie Maker received 17% of the votes

Avocado Slicer - 33%

And the winner as the most pretentious kitchen gadget? 

Asparagus Steamer with 50% 

If you have an asparagus steamer… feel special and ignore the haters. And please invite us to your next dinner. Asparagus is delicious. 

Some of the interesting devices that came up in the comments include a 

hot dog toaster and a bacon bowl maker. 

If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about in the thread!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.


  1. Hi guys, the use of "a thousand words" as a point of comparison was common as far back as at least the 16th century. In the 1591 work, The Countess of Pembroke, the following line appears, describing a look a lover gives his or her beloved: "those silent looks, and louely regards of a Louer more, than a thousand words, expresse those pangs of a Louer."

    From 1619: "since one gyft in necessitie is better then a thousand words".

    And from 1636: "and the knowledge of that disorder gave ariana a greater assurance of his joy and passion, than a thousand words could have done.;g=eebogroup

    Peter Lukacs
    You can find these in the Early English Online Database: