A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

By Gordon Hopkins

I used to think I understood the meaning of that old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Most people assume it means it is easier to convey a thought or idea with a picture that with an explanation.
I used to think this, too, and it has become accepted as fact in our modern, image-driven society. I am old enough to remember when walk/don’t walk signals used actual words, “Walk” and “Don’t Walk.” I never really had any trouble with this. Now, there was a time, I suppose when I was very, very young, when I couldn’t yet read, that this sign might not have done me any good. Although I probably wouldn’t have been crossing the street at that age anyway.
Now, of course, walk/don’t walk signals use pictures. For “Walk,” they use a picture of a person walking. Makes sense. For “Don’t Walk,” they use a picture of a hand. So why did a hand become the universal symbol for “Don’t Walk?” Okay, I understand why. People hold up a hand to get you to stop. Obviously, I know what it means when some hold up a hand and says, “Stop right there, mister!” I’ve been on dates before.
So I admit the walk/don’t walk signals work. The problem I have is that now we are trying to use this approach for everything, and the meaning isn’t always so obvious.
Like all car-owners, I am frequently bedeviled by the omnipresent “check engine” light on my dashboard, telling me there is something wrong with my car but offering no additional clues as to what the problem may be.
Actually, I’m not even sure it is a check engine light. There are no words saying “check engine.” That would be too helpful. Instead, I get this orange picture of what looks kind of like a teapot with a propeller.
More recently, another light has appeared and I have no idea what it is supposed to be. It looks kind of like a Klingon Bird of Prey from the “Star Trek” movies. Unless my cloaking device is malfunctioning, I don’t have a clue what this light is telling me.
I used to think I understood the meaning of that old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Now I know what it really means. It takes a thousand words to explain what that stupid picture is supposed to mean.


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