For other uses, see Rebus (disambiguation).
A rebus-style "escort card" from around 1865, to be read as "May I see you home my dear?"
A German rebus, circa 1620.

A rebus (/ˈrē-bəs/) 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 surname "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

Further information: Canting arms

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". The arms of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon feature bows and lions.

Modern rebuses, word plays

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

H + = 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


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

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

In linguistics, the rebus principle is the use of 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.

Use in game shows


United Kingdom

United States


Historic examples

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 à cent sous scie? "two hands under 'p' at [one] hundred under saw" = demain souper à Sanssouci? "supper tomorrow at Sanssouci?"); reply: Gé grand, A petit! "big 'G', small 'a'!" (= j'ai grand appétit! "I am very hungry!").


A rebus for the names of Japanese provinces, from around 1800.
A bottle of Yamato Shizuku (やまと しずく, Japan droplet) sake (name spelt out at top right), with a rebus ∧ト💧 which is read as yama (, mountain) (symbolized by the ∧) + to (, katakana character for to) + shizuku (, droplet) (symbolized by the 💧).

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]

Today the most often seen of these symbols is a picture of a sickle, a circle, and the letter nu (), read as kama-wa-nu (鎌輪ぬ, sickle circle nu), interpreted as kamawanu (構わぬ), the old-fashioned form of kamawanai (構わない, don't worry, doesn't matter). This is known as the kamawanu-mon (鎌輪奴文, kamawanu sign), and dates to circa 1700,[13] being used in kabuki since circa 1815.[14][15]

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 that represented the Japanese calendar in rebus so it could be "read" by the illiterate.

Today a number of abstract examples following certain conventions are occasionally used for names, primarily for corporate logos or product logos and incorporating some characters of the name, as in a monogram; see Japanese rebus monogram. The most familiar example globally is the logo for Yamasa soy sauce, which is a ∧ with a サ under it. This is read as Yama, for yama (, mountain) (symbolized by the ∧) + sa (, katakana character for sa).

See also


  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. Archived 13 May 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  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; Rimer, J. Thomas; Carpenter, John T. (1993). Kunisada's world. Japan Society, in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America. ISBN 978-0-913304-37-2., p.23
  13. Archived 17 August 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. "旅から旅 文様事典 BBS". Retrieved 2015-06-20.
  15. Alan J. Switzer. "Puzzle Beer Caps". Retrieved 2013-03-14.
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