Definition: An allusion device that uses pictures in place of words.
Origin: C. 1600 – from French. Originally a Latin word, as exemplified by the phrase Non verbus sed rebus – ‘Not by words, but by things’.
Why this word?
Everyone has read and concocted a rebus at some stage in their lives. Everyone knows what a rebus is. But hardly anyone knows the official term for it. What teenager has not declared romantic intent by drawing a picture of an eye, followed by a picture of a heart and followed by an image of a female sheep? Ok- maybe it was just me…
The rebus is a very old concept. Think of Egyptian hieroglyphs – pictures instead of words. Indeed, think of our own alphabet. It has been speculated that the letter “A”, for example, is the upturned head of a horned bull.
The rebus really came into its own about a thousand years ago, when the craft of heraldry evolved. The coat of arms of Ramsgate in England, for example, has a picture of a ram flanked by gates. In England, Princess Beatrice (pf toilet seat hat fame) uses three bees on her coat of arms (i.e., Bees thrice – see coat of arms above). In heraldry, this use of a rebus is called canting.
Arguably one of the most common encounters that people will have with a rebus is in the parlour game charades. When you tweak your ear to indicate ‘sounds like’, you are indicating that you are about to act out a rebus.
How to use this word:
Rebus is simply one of those things that you should know. Everyone devises them, interprets them and understands them. Yet there is a good chance that you will be the only person in the room that will be able to name them!
Of course, rather than use the word, you could just use the concept.