ON LANGUAGE: Worth a Thousand Words By William Safire April 07, 1996
ONE PICTURE IS WORTH TEN thousand words.” That, as we all know, is an ancient Chinese proverb. At least most of us think that’s what it is. But in the Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Famous Phrases, the quotations sleuth Burton Stevenson exploded that myth, attributing the saying to one Fred R. Barnard. As helpful phrasedicks do, Stevenson included the earliest citation’s source, which was first in Printer’s Ink of Dec. 8, 1921, and again in that magazine on March 10, 1927. I stumbled over this information in writing the introduction to a book of famous news photographs that have appeared in The New York Times, part of the celebration of 100 years that the newspaper has been in the Ochs family. (Adolph Ochs bought the struggling daily in 1896; welcome to the centennial.) That led me to the nefarious way the most famous remark about photography was coined, and it has never been told in full before.
Fred Barnard was national advertising manager of Street Railways Advertising, in the 1920's a sizable agency having offices across the nation and boasting that “the cars on our list carry more than 10,000,000,000 passengers a year,” but it was derailed in 1941. Barnard took an ad in Printer’s Ink with this headline: “One Look Is Worth a Thousand Words.”
The copy block began: “So said a famous Japanese philosopher, and he was right — nearly everyone likes to ‘read’ pictures. ‘Buttersweet is good to eat’ is a very short phrase, but it will sell more goods if presented, with an appetizing picture of the product, to many people morning, noon and night, every day in the year, than a thousand-word advertisement placed before the same number of people only a limited number of times during the year.”
But his slogan didn’t work; a look does not stand in sharp contrast to a word. He could have said, “A look is worth a thousand descriptions,” which sounds more like parallel construction, but the adman was destined to do better.
Six years later, planning another ad to attract business to his agency, Barnard changed “one look” to “one picture,” which contrasted nicely with “words,” and while he was at it, escalated the “one thousand” to “ten thousand.” The famous Japanese philosopher (whom nobody ever heard of because he never existed) fell by the wayside. The adman hired a calligrapher to put the words into Chinese characters, and under them captioned, “Chinese Proverb: One Picture Is Worth Ten Thousand Words.”
We do not know why he switched from Japanese to Chinese; perhaps the artist he hired knew only Chinese, and the picture of the Chinese characters was worth more than a lot of copy. Barnard later confessed he made that attribution to an ancient Asian “so that people would take it seriously.”
He was right; we do slavishly accept the primacy of pictures over prose. Although writers could readily deride the wisdom of a mere car-card salesman like Fred Barnard, we are reluctant to take on Confucius or some other venerable sage when it comes to a subject as controversial as the derogation of the written word. The lesson in all this: As Diogenes used to say, one original thought is worth a thousand mindless quotings. Make that ten thousand.
When Wiliam Safire died in September of 2009 I felt I had really lost a friend even though my only claim to it is that I had met him when I interviewed him and photographed him in his hotel room in Seattle in 1995. During that interview we had shared chocolate covered strawberries and discussed his female ankle fetish. I had suspected he had one from several hints mentioned in his novel, Sleeper Spy (the reason for the interview) based on the very interesting life of James Jesus Angleton who was the head of counter intelligence at the CIA. Safire admitted his fetish and he explained that the perfect ankle was one in which he could close thumb with index finger when encircling it.
We talked a lot about the power of photography and I remember him telling me about the idea that a photograph packed or was worth 1000 words. I had no clue as to the Mr. Barnard Safire refered to. But I was thrilled that he found the time to chat with me and I was particularly pleased when he ordered the strawberries from room service. I had brought with me one of the earliest books I had purchased from the Book of the Month Club back in 1989 which was his 1980 On Language.
In the last couple of years I have noticed that I have upped the ante in this blog. In the beginning I had limited my daily blog to one photograph and a short paragraph. This has now become a multiple image deal with lots of writing. This can be a pain but I have not succumbed too often. Today I noticed that one picture (actually four) of Virve Reid (the Baltic Surprise) that served as my preliminary attempts at doing a series of women in tubs, could be cropped so as to be viewed by all here without offending. This one picture, to me, is worth many words and I would be inclined to run it with no copy. But some would say, Blogger Alex is getting lazy. Or they might not appreciate that through luck and a bit of talent Virve looks absolutely stunning here. Are words necessary?
The pictures that follow that one picture are variants where in one I used the technique of scanning the double negative with a sheet of paper on top (the defects and bits of the paper show up on the resulting image). In the other I simply scanned the double negative (one exposure after another in the strip of negative) normally and cropped out what might have offended some.
But at the very least this exercise has given me the chance to mention that friend, who as serious as he looks in my portrait was not at all like that. He had a wonderful sense of humor that I feel the On Language column of the New York Times now lacks. Sad to say I usually skip that page in my Sunday New York Times Magazine. I miss Mr. William Safire.