I. What is a Rebus?
A rebus is a code or reference where pictures, letters, or symbols represent certain words or phrases. During the Middle Ages, many families used rebuses to symbolize their family names or crest. In the modern age, rebuses are typically used as challenging riddles or puzzles. Rebus (pronounced ree-buhs) is derived from the Latin phrase nōn verbīs sed rebus, meaning “not by words but by things.” Perhaps the simplest and most common rebus in use today is “IOU” for “I owe you.”
II. Examples of Rebus
Many forms of rebus can be found in modern word play puzzles.
This graphic is a great example of pictures as words:
“Eye heart ewe” means “I love you.”
This one is a little more difficult:
“All dressed up and nowhere to go.”
All” is straight forward, but the word “dressed” is spelled down-up instead of up-down, in order to visually express “dressed up.” Lastly, perhaps the most difficult, a classic to-go box labelled “nowhere” visually expresses the phrase “nowhere to go.”
“Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.”
III. The Importance of Using Rebus
Rebuses are, in a sense, the root of many written languages. Many ancient language systems were created through the use of rebuses, with pictures representing words or associated sounds. Egyptian hieroglyphs are an example of a language that has many rebuses. Languages such as Chinese, which use characters, may have been created originally using rebuses. Today, rebuses provide those who enjoy wordplay, logic puzzles, and associative thinking games with challenging riddles to solve.
IV. Rebus in Literature
Rebuses can be found in ancient literature or can be inspired by popular literature. Here are a few examples of literary rebuses:
To be, or not to be?
This rebus is inspired by Shakespeare’s famous lines from the play Hamlet.
This rebus was part of America to her Mistaken Mother, a pictogram made in 1794 to comment on British and colonial American politics. In this example, rebus was used for satire:
(America) (toe) her (Miss)taken (Moth)er. (Yew) s(eye)lly (old woman) t(hat) (yew) have sent a (lure) (toe) us is very (plane) (toe) draw our at(ten)-t(eye)on from our re(awl) (eye)ntrests (butt) we are determ(eye)n’d (toe) ab(eye)de by our own ways of th(eye)nk(eye)ng (Ewer) [your] 5 (child)ren (yew) have sent (toe) us sh(awl) (bee) treated as V(eye)s(eye)tors, & safely sent home aga(eye)n (yew) may [? carved bracket] t them & adm(eye)re them, (butt) (yew) must (knot) (X)pect I of (ewer) (puppet)s w(eye)ll (comb) [come] home (toe) (yew) as sweet as (yew) sent h(eye)m, twas cruel toe send so pretty a (man) so many 1000 miles & (toe) have the fat(eye)gue of re[t](urn)ing back after (spike?)(eye)ng h(eye)s (coat) & d(eye)rt(eye)ng [dirting] t[hose] red (heel) (shoes) (eye)f (yew) are w(eyes) follow (ewer) own ad(vice) (yew) gave (toe) me take home ewer (ships) sold(eye)(ears) [soldiers] guard (well) (ewer) own tr(eye)fl(eye)(ling ?) [a fish]. & leave me (toe) my self as (eye) am at age (toe) know my own (eye)ntrests. w(eye)thout (ewer) (fool)(eye)sh ad(vice) & know t(hat) (eye) sh(awl) (awl)ways regard (yew) & my Brothers as relat(eye)ons (butt) (knot) as fr(eye)nds.
(Eye) (am) (ewer) (grate)fy (eye)njured Daughter Amer(eye)k.
V. Rebus in Pop Culture
Rebuses can be found in pop culture as well, as ransom notes are written in code by TV criminals, musical album covers convey secret messages, and various companies make use of symbols in advertising and product placement. Here are a few examples of pop cultural rebuses:
Tattoos in Memento
In the movie Memento, a man with short-term memory loss uses cryptic tattoos to remember his past and his goals.
Symbols in The Da Vinci Code
This film, inspired by Dan Brown’s book, makes use of many rebuses which have complicated and mysterious meanings.
VI. Related Terms
Egyptian hieroglyphics were used by ancient Egyptians to communicate. The language originated from artistic symbols on poetry. Hieroglyphics are an example of a language which emerged from rebuses.
A symbol is an object or image which represents something else. Symbols and rebuses are related because rebuses consist of symbols including numbers, alphabetic letters, and images.
The symbol “2” for the number “two”.
Every day, we use symbols to write and communicate.
VII. In Closing
Rebuses are more than fun word games. They are the beginning of many modern-day languages and the beginning of written communication and recording. Rebuses show us how images and drawings became symbols and letters which became words, phrases, and sentences that make up alphabets and languages of today.