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

A rebus (Latin: "by things") is a kind of word puzzle that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words. For example:

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

other:( the walk park ):walk in the park

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. [1]

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.[1] Rebus letters served either as a sort of code or simply as a pastime.


Rebuses and heraldry

Rebuses are used extensively in heraldry as a hint to the name of the owner of a coat of arms. This practice is known as canting. For example, the arms of the Borough of Congleton in Cheshire contain a conger eel, a lion (in Latin, leo) and a tun (another word for a barrel). This word sequence "conger leo tun" recalls the town's name.

The more popular rebuses contain simple English letters of the alphabet in different sizes, colors, and other manipulations that often represent popular sayings and phrases. These popular rebuses are often termed "wordies".

Rebuses and game shows

Rebuses were central to the United States television game show Concentration. Contestants had to solve a rebus, usually partially concealed, to win a game.

Lone Star Beer has rebus puzzles under the crown caps of its bottled beer, as do National Bohemian, Lucky Lager, Falstaff, Olympia, Rainier, Ballantine, Mickey's, Lionshead, and Narragansett.

The United Kingdom also had a game show which required contestants to identify a rebus. The show, Catchphrase, was a longstanding Saturday evening show, with Roy Walker as its most notable host.

Examples from history

  • It is written that when Voltaire was the guest of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci Palace, they exchanged puzzle notes. Frederick sent over a page with two picture blocks on it: two hands below the letter P, and then the number 100 below a picture of a handsaw, all followed by a question mark. Voltaire replied with: Ga!
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!").
  • General Charles James Napier sent a one-word message after his conquest of the Sindh region, which could be construed as either a rebus or a bilingual pun: "Peccavi"—the Latin word for "I have sinned" = "I have Sindh."
  • Similarly, some 14 years later in India, James Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie telegraphed another one worder, Vovi'—the Latin word for "I vowed" = "I've Oudh" to indicate the annexation of the province, today known as Ayodhya.
  • In the US, a rebus was used on the Continental Congress Patterns minted in 1776 and later on the Fugio Cent, the first federal coin, minted in 1787. According to Walter Breen, Elisha Gaullaudet engraved the dies, using sketches of Benjamin Franklin. The obverse depicts a sundial with the terms "Fugio" and "Mind Your Business". Fugio means "I flee", the sundial means time, and "mind your business" means "do your work". Therefore this rebus read, "Time flees, so do your work."

The Rebus Principle

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 Chinese developed its writing system according to the rebus principle,[2] 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.


  1. ^ Fischer, Steven Roger, "A History of Writing", 2004, Reaktion Books, ISBN 1-86189-167-9, 9781861891679, at page 36
  2. ^ The Languages of China. S. Robert Ramsey. Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 137.

External links


1911 encyclopedia

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also rebus, and rébus



Rebus m. or n.

  1. rebus (type of word puzzle)


  • Bilderrätsel n.


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