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For other uses, see Rebus (disambiguation).
A German rebus, circa 1620.

A rebus is an allusional device that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words. It was a favourite form of heraldic expression used in the Middle Ages to denote surnames.

For example, in its basic form, three salmon (fish) are used to denote the name "Salmon". A more sophisticated example was the rebus of Bishop Walter Lyhart (d.1472) of Norwich, consisting of a stag (or hart) lying down in a conventional representation of water.

The composition alludes to the name, profession or personal characteristics of the bearer, and speaks to the beholder Non verbis, sed rebus, which Latin expression signifies "not by words but by things"[1] (res, rei (f), a thing, object, matter; rebus being ablative plural).[2]

Rebuses within heraldry[edit]

Further information: Canting arms
The arms of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon: bows and lions.

Rebuses are used extensively as a form of heraldic expression as a hint to the name of the bearer; they are not synonymous with canting arms. A man might have a rebus as a personal identification device entirely separate from his armorials, canting or otherwise. For example, Sir Richard Weston (d.1541) bore as arms: Ermine, on a chief azure five bezants, whilst his rebus, displayed many times in terracotta plaques on the walls of his mansion Sutton Place, Surrey, was a "tun" or barrel, used to designate the last syllable of his surname.

An example of canting arms proper are those of the Borough of Congleton in Cheshire consisting of a conger eel, a lion (in Latin, leo) and a tun (another word for a barrel). This word sequence "conger-leo-tun" enunciates the town's name. Similarly, the coat of arms of St. Ignatius Loyola contains wolves (in Spanish, lobo) and a kettle (olla), said by some (probably incorrectly) to be a rebus for "Loyola".

Modern rebuses, word plays[edit]

A modern example of the rebus used as a form of word play is:

H + picture of an ear = Hear, or Here.

By extension, it also uses the positioning of words or parts of words in relation to each other to convey a hidden meaning, for example:

p walk ark: walk in the park


Three rebus-style "escort cards" from the 1860s or 1870s.

The term rebus also refers to the use of a pictogram to represent a syllabic sound. This adapts pictograms into phonograms. A precursor to the development of the alphabet, this process represents one of the most important developments of writing. Fully developed hieroglyphs read in rebus fashion were in use at Abydos in Egypt as early as 3400 BCE.[3]

The writing of correspondence in rebus form became popular in the 18th century and continued into the 19th century. Lewis Carroll wrote the children he befriended picture-puzzle rebus letters, nonsense letters, and looking-glass letters, which had to be held in front of a mirror to be read.[4] Rebus letters served either as a sort of code or simply as a pastime.

Rebus principle[edit]

Ramesses II as child: Hieroglyphs: Ra-mes-su.

In linguistics, the rebus principle means using existing symbols, such as pictograms, purely for their sounds regardless of their meaning, to represent new words. Many ancient writing systems used the rebus principle to represent abstract words, which otherwise would be hard to be represented by pictograms. An example that illustrates the Rebus principle is the representation of the sentence "I can see you" by using the pictographs of "eye—can—sea—ewe."

Some linguists believe that the Chinese developed their writing system according to the rebus principle,[5] and Egyptian hieroglyphs sometimes used a similar system. A famous rebus statue of Ramses II uses three hieroglyphs to compose his name: Horus (as Ra), for Ra; the child, mes; and the sedge plant (stalk held in left hand), su; the name Ra-mes-su is then formed.[citation needed]

Use in game shows[edit]


United Kingdom

United States


Historic examples[edit]

A rebus sent to Voltaire by Frederick the Great.
Bishop Oldham's owl-dom rebus as carved in the wall of his chantry in Exeter Cathedral[6]
Both messages were rebuses in the French language: deux mains sous Pé, cent sous scie? (= demain souper, Sanssouci? "supper tomorrow, Sanssouci?"); reply: "big G, small a!" Gé grand, A petit! (= j'ai grand appétit! "I am very hungry!").


A rebus for the names of Japanese provinces, from around 1800.

In Japan, the rebus known as "hanjimono (判じ物?)"[10] was immensely popular during the Edo period.[11] A piece by ukiyo-e artist Kunisada was "Actor Puzzles" (Yakusha hanjimono) that featured rebuses.[12]

Kabuki actors would wear yukata and other clothing whose pictorial design, in rebus, represented their Yagō "guild names", and would distribute tenugui cloth with their rebused names as well. The practice was not restricted to the acting profession and was undertaken by townsfolk of various walks of life. There were also pictorial calendars called egoyomi(ja) that represented the Japanese calendar in rebus so it could be "read" by the illiterate.

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Boutell, Charles, Heraldry Historical & Popular, London, 1863, pp.117–120
  2. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary, ed. Marchant & Charles
  3. ^ Fischer, Steven Roger, "A History of Writing", 2004, Reaktion Books, ISBN 1-86189-167-9, ISBN 978-1-86189-167-9, at page 36
  4. ^ [1][dead link]
  5. ^ The Languages of China. S. Robert Ramsey. Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 137.
  6. ^ Boutell, Charles (1863). Heraldry, Historical and Popular (2nd ed.). London: Winsor and Newton. p. 118. 
  7. ^ Danesi, Marcel (2002). The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life (1st ed.). Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press. p. 61. 
  8. ^ Moss, John. "Manchester Celebrities – Philanthropy, Philosophy & Religion – Bishop Hugh Oldham". ManchesterUK. Retrieved 2011-01-03. 
  9. ^ "A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible". American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Library of Congress. Retrieved January 31, 2015. 
  10. ^ Hepburn, James Curtis (1873). A Japanese-English and English-Japanese Dictionary. A.D.F. Randolph. 
  11. ^ Ihara, Saikaku (1963). Morris, Ivan, ed. The Life of an Amorous Woman: And Other Writings. A.D.F. Randolph. ISBN 978-0-8112-0187-2. , p.348, note 456,
  12. ^ Izzard, Sebastian; J. Thomas Rimer, John T. Carpenter (1993). Kunisada's world. Japan Society, in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America. ISBN 978-0-913304-37-2.  , p.23
  13. ^ Alan J. Switzer. "Puzzle Beer Caps". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 

External links[edit]