Rebus

Sonic Youth

A rebus [ree-buhs] is an allusional device that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words. It was a favorite form of heraldic expression used in the Middle Ages to denote surnames, for example in its basic form three salmon fish to denote the name ‘Salmon.’

A more sophisticated example was the rebus of Bishop Walter Lyhart 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’ (Latin: ‘not by words but by things’).

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 visual pun on a coat of arms). A man might have a rebus as a personal identification device entirely separate from his armorials (identifying marks on armor), canting or otherwise. For example, Sir Richard Weston bore as arms: ‘Ermine, on a chief azure five bezants’ (a white on black pattern and gold coins on a blue bar), 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. 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 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. 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. Rebus letters served either as a sort of code or simply as a pastime.

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, 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.

It is reported that when Voltaire (French Enlightenment philosopher famous for his wit) 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!’).

The early 16th century Bishop of Exeter, Hugh Oldham adopted the owl as his personal device. It bore a scroll in its beak bearing the letters ‘D.O.M.,’ forming a rebus based on his surname, which would probably have been pronounced at the time as owl-dom. 19th century French sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan would place rebuses on the socles of his caricature busts to identify the subject. For example, Victor Hugo was an axe (‘hache’ in French, which sounds like the French pronunciation of ‘H’) + ‘UG’ + crossed bones (‘os,’ sounding like ‘O’). Hector Berlioz was represented by the letters ‘BER low’ on the base, with a bed (lit, for ‘li’) above it (to mean ‘haut,’ the French for high, pronounced with a silent ‘h’ and ‘t’ and so sounding like ‘O’).

In the U.S., 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.’

In Japan, the rebus was known as ‘hanjimono’ and was immensely popular during the Edo period. A piece by ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Kunisada was ‘Actor Puzzles’ (‘Yakusha hanjimono’) that featured rebuses. Kabuki actors would wear yukata and other clothing whose pictorial design, in rebus, represented their guild names, and would distribute tenugui (hand towels) 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.

Lionshead beer, Lone Star beer, and Ballantine Ale feature rebuses on the underside of the caps of their glass bottles called ‘crown ticklers.’ In the underground comic ‘Zap’ No. 8 from 1975, Robert Williams’ story ‘Innocence Squandered’ features a character called ‘Counselor Rebus.’ He is the defense attorney in a courtroom scene for the protagonist of the story, F. Leonoid Baldpubis. Mr. Willams’ fanciful artwork style comes into play here as well as his sense of humor: Counselor Rebus has a body made of Rebuses (glass of beer for the ‘head’, ruler for a foot) and speaks entirely in rebuses throughout the story.

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