It’s a phrase that we all know and love, and it once completely wrecked the economy. This never would have happened to the math people; they would have seen it coming from one point six kilometers away. But it hit us hard.
Our city was the world’s premier location for buying words. Short, sesquipedalian, or seventeen-lettered; you name it and it was there. We did a great trade. After all, everyone needs words and lots of people love them. You could buy a vowel, barter the definite article for an indefinite one, or modify a word you already own. Everybody used all the right words and only the right words. Signs were posted all over saying,
Brevity is the soul of wit.
People kept trying the best words possible, and everything worked. Lawyers hammered out agreements. Stories were woven out of the best words available. Wordsmiths did their smithing and constructed some of the best poetry that was ever made. Slogans and phrases were crafted with care, and the best combinations of syllables became public favorites. If you have a felicity or a eudaimonia that was spelled back then, it’s ridiculously valuable now. They don’t make words like they used to.
That was before. Then, people started saying that phrase. I don’t know if it was a marketing campaign gone horribly right, a virulent meme that got out of hand, or just an accident. But suddenly, everyone decided that a picture was worth a thousand words.
The most obvious problem was that people started to care more about pictures than about words. They all started trying to communicate in pictures instead of words, setting writing back a couple thousand years. Since people didn’t care about words anymore, the entire market slowed to a crawl. The signs posted everywhere changed, warning everyone not to buy what they used to:
An ill-chosen word is the fool’s messenger.
Nobody wanted to buy words any more. Why should they, when they thought pictures were so much better? The few people who were selling pictures before ended up fabulously wealthy. People would hand over words by the hundreds for a single picture. A chiasm that had been in the family for generations would be traded in along with everything else. Artists selling pictures were underselling each other, of course, but that didn’t help much. Anything priced under a thousand would be snapped up instantly.
It got worse. People stopped even caring what pictures they bought. Everyone was so used to thinking that a picture is worth a thousand words that they’d buy anything. So the picture-makers (you could hardly call them artists, anymore) started getting sloppy. They could make their thousand words per picture regardless of what the picture was. At one point I saw a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on the same shelf as an unrecognizable 20 x 50 pixel picture of Napoleon with the same price tag for each. The second one sold first.
Some of us tried to tell people that even if a picture was worth a thousand words, nobody said what picture it was. And they definitely didn’t say all pictures were worth a thousand words. As you might imagine, we lost. We were quibbling about words, which were the one thing everybody cared about least.
Speak fitly, or be silent wisely.
And it got even worse. Soon after that, people decided that their new philosophy meant that which word you were trading in didn’t even matter, just as long as there were a thousand of them. A few people spoke out against it. “Words aren’t fungible!” “You’re devaluing the phoneme!” But nobody listened. Maybe that was because they had spent all their fancy words to get more pictures and had no idea what the other people were saying.
People used to look closely at quagmires and upholsterys and flabbergasts to make sure they were high-quality words. Slang just sucked. But now, nobody distinguished between Hamlet and the word “ant” repeated thirty thousand times. Either one could buy thirty pictures, and they were therefore equal. Words lost all meaning. Only a few even bothered to still use them. It was frowned upon to use words for anything unless you had to.
And then they started selling moving pictures. Whole rolls of film, showing dozens of pictures every second. Only the wealthiest could afford them. They could cost whole vocabularies even for a few seconds of video.
Silence is golden.
In a matter of months, nobody used words at all. Vocabularies had been reduced to zero. Communication was done entirely by pictograms (there was no shortage of those) and by gestures. The city that used to prize its dictionaries was speechless. Those of us who were unfashionable or antisocial enough to not join the craze were even more outcasts than before. We could, quite literally, not talk to anybody else in the city.
Despite the fact that barely anybody used words, a politician named Bill or Brian or something gave an incredible speech that got famous afterward for its metaphor. Something about crucifixion on a silent cross, and also currency. Naturally, that reference went right over everybody’s head. He lost his next election.
The problem did get fixed eventually. A logician from outside the city convinced the citizens that if they don’t care about words, and a picture is worth a thousand times nothing, they don’t care about pictures either. The bubble popped. The mint printed enough vocabulary for everyone to be able to converse normally, and if the city never fully recovered it at least made it back to functioning like before.
We try not to publicize how it happened. We found a scapegoat which we could blame, and left it at that. Now, people think they’ve learned from their mistake, but they’re just making the opposite one. Throwing around words that are superfluous, repetitive, and redundant. Generally acting like words grow on trees. Even pointing loaded metaphors where they might hurt someone. Unfortunately, language here is still lacking all rhyme and reason.
Disclaimer: the setting and some of the results were lifted wholesale from The Phantom Tollbooth. Causes and most of the events are original. People who have read The Phantom Tollbooth seem to overestimate how much was stolen, people who have not read The Phantom Tollbooth need to go do that right now. Seriously, drop what you are doing and go read it.