Definition of Rebus

Derived from a French term, rebus, means a riddle or a puzzle. It has been in common use in the 17th century. It is stated that it is originally a Latin term with plural “res” and means the same thing.

As a literary device, rebus means the representation of words through pictures of the things with which it has some similarity. This similarity could be in syllables or individual syllables or complete sounds of the word. It could be having equal or similar phonemes in both words.

Whereas its use in literature is concerned, there are no known records of when and who used this term and in which of his works. However, it is commonly known that the Chinese and Egyptians in the ancient times used rebuses to convey messages. Therefore, some writers must have used such rebuses or devices through different numbers, letters, and musical signs.

Semantically, the use of rebus is for cryptic purposes. This could be an intention to keep things secret, or an act of espionage, or an exchange of information away from the eyes of the people. Whatever the purpose is, it has evolved overtime and has developed into a skill used mostly in espionage.

Categories of Rebus

There are no definite categories of rebus. However, it could be roughly categories according to the following criteria.

  1. Use of letters
  2. Use of words
  3. Use of images
  4. Use of pictures
  5. Use of shapes
  6. Use of sounds
  7. Use of symbols
  8. Use of abbreviations and emojis

Examples of Rebus in Literature

Example #1

Max and Ruby Series by Rosemary Wells

This series by Rosemary Wells is to teach children different letters, numbers and sums. It is part of Picture Reader Series in which the stories of Max and Ruby, the bunny siblings, have been told through flash cards and pictures. Although there is no such use of rebus in purely literary terms, the use of pictures instead of words and letters show its initial usage in children literature. The series helps children match words with pictures to facilitate early learning.

Example #2

“I Can’t,” Said the Ant: A Second Book of Nonsense by Polly Cameron

Although this book, too, comprises the actions and images on the opposite page or with the words and actions, it seems a good example of some of the rebuses used to teach children language arts. Although these are not traditional rebuses, they have some basic principles of using images for words and rhymes. The story revolves around Miss Teapot who falls on the floor.

Example #3

Inside a Barn in the Country by Alyssa Satin Capucilli

This book is a perfect example of the use of rebuses. Yet, it is somewhat different in that it uses pictures where there should be words to facilitate the child learning. Some of the words have been replaced with images such as the mouse with the picture of the mouse and so on. This is called the use of illustrations instead of regular words and texts. For example, some of the examples in it show the picture of a mouse such as “Here is the (image of a mouse) that squeaked on the hay” and so on. Such use of rebuses is for practical purposes of teaching children.

Example #4

Some Modern Rebuses

Some of the modern rebuses have unique features. For example, emojis used in different communication apps perfectly match their expressions in words or sounds. Such emojis convey different meanings to the intended audiences. Similarly, chatting tools have also condensed the public communication in a way that they seem rebuses used in everyday life. For example, people often use ASAP for as soon as possible and LoL for lots of laughter and so on. Some people have invented and coined their own rebuses, showing only animal, things, and objects in images to convey their messages of pleasure or displeasure. Although this is not a literary usage of rebuses, it creeps into literature when writing about cultures.

Functions of Rebus

Although rebuses are rarely used in literary texts, sometimes writers resort to using rebuses when they are writing cryptic, spy or science fiction. It is because they want to make the readers feel the suspense and deduce meanings to feel satisfied that they have gained something. Other than this, they are also useful to win readers who are curious to know more about the world of mystery and inscrutability. Also, writers use them to teach their readers different strategies to cope with comprehension and memory. They are best used to teach children with dyslexia and autism.


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