Rebus puzzles are a type of picture-based word puzzle originating in the Middle Ages and deriving from early pictographic languages. While they were traditionally used to express surnames in heraldry, it was popularized in its modern form by the American game show Concentration.

History[edit | edit source]

Rebuses are one of the oldest types of wordplay, dating back to early European heraldry. The original purpose was to incorporate surnames into heraldic designs in a visually significant way, but the purpose has since evolved to be a unique way to communicate, a form of artistic expression, a way to advertise products, and a popular puzzle type.

Etymology[edit | edit source]

The word 'rebus' came to be present in modern English through the French and Latin languages. Originally, it could be translated literally from Latin as 'by means of objects'. The word was also present in the phrase "non verbis sed rebus", meaning 'not by words but by things'. Being a fitting description of modern rebuses, this phrase is often considered to be the origin of the word in English.

However, in the mid-1600s, French sources recorded use of the word in the French phrase 'de rebus quæ geruntur', translated as 'of things which are going on'. The phrase was in reference to the trend of carnivals putting up satirical posters and artwork depicting current events via rebus-like picture sequences. It's likely that the Latin version more directly influenced modern English usage, but the popularization of the word as applied to the French carnival rebuses still had some influence on the wordplay's evolution itself.

The Middle Ages - Heraldry[edit | edit source]

The coat of arms of the Dutch town of Hensbroek. Despite not being the meaning behind the name, the arms interprets the name as 'Hen-Breeches'.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, heraldry was commonly used as a way to represent individual people, regions, or kingdoms via unique imagery. A common practice in personal coats of arms was to use canting arms, a way to represent names and titles via a rebus/pun. As many familial names originated from professions or otherwise contained words with prominent imagery, many canting arms were simply accurate visual representations of a name's etymology. This includes the prominent Bowes-Lyon family, which had both archers' bows and heraldic lions on their crest. Similarly, canting arms for towns with known etymologies could usually be represented fairly easily, such as Châteaurenard, France, whose arms contain a château (castle) and a renard (fox).

Those wishing to have more fun with the interpretation of their names or being unfortunate enough to not have easily-translatable names in the first place could take an alternate route to creating their arms. For example, the borough of Congleton, in Cheshire county, England, uses eels, lions, and a barrel in its coat of arms. This represents the sequence 'Conger (eel), Leo (lion), Tun (barrel)', thereby creating a fairly close approximation of the borough's name.

1700s-1900s - Social and Artistic Rebuses[edit | edit source]

As heraldry began to decline in use, rebuses also began to fade from public use in the west. However, a form of rebus known as hanjimono gained popularity in Japan in its stead around the turn of the 18th century. Rebuses were distributed in many forms during the Edo period, including artistic puzzles, calendars, and clothing. Clothing in particular became a popular way to display small rebus puzzles, and was often used by kabuki actors to display their guild name.

It wasn't until the mid-1700s when rebuses began to come back into fashion in Europe, particularly in the form of gimmicky correspondence between friends. Sending cards with images printed on them to convey a message was not only a more fun option, but had the possibility of reducing the size of a given piece of correspondence. While cost reduction may not have been a factor, having to use less paper is still a worthy reason to practice rebus letters. Notable users of this included Voltaire, Frederick II of Prussia, and Lewis Carroll.

1900s-Today - Game Shows and Advertisements[edit | edit source]

In the US, the widespread appreciation for rebuses began in the 1950s, when the game show Concentration began broadcast on NBC. While the bulk of the show was an elaborate matching game for prizes, in order to claim their prizes contestants had to solve a rebus puzzle that gradually got revealed with each correct match. The popularity of the show across multiple broadcast periods, including a stint in syndication and a reboot in the 80s would produce international version of the show, as well as attempts to adapt rebuses for other game show formats. These include the Canadian Kidstreet, the British Waffle, and the American Crashbox, all of which premiered in the 80s and 90s to varying levels of success.

A bottle of Yamato Shizuku sake, showcasing the rebus label.

Another short-lived show was the American Catchphrase, wherein contestants would, rather than playing a separate game to slowly reveal a rebus puzzle, be gradually shown a rebus drawn out in real time. The goal was to buzz in and guess what the rebus was depicting before one's opponent could. The show only survived a few months in the US, but when it was picked up in the UK two days after the US's last episode, it ended up lasting 18 years (not including the reboot in 2013 that is still running as of 2022).

Outside of game shows, the US was also exposed to rebuses via their beer, as Lone Star, Ballantine, Olympia, and many other companies began to print small rebuses under their bottlecaps in the 70s and 80s. These acted as both a collectible item and an icebreaker in social situation. A popular gimmick soon after it was introduced, the 'crown ticklers' as they were sometimes called were quickly copied by over a dozen different brands across the United States.

Similarly, Japanese companies also began to use rebus-like monograms in logos and advertising, particular among bottled products like alcohol and soy sauce. One such sake company, Yamato Shizuku, uses an image combining the symbols ∧,ト, and 💧 (in vertical order), in order to represent the company name. The ∧ gets interpreted as a mountain, and pronounced as "yama". ト is the katakana for "to", while the droplet (💧) at the bottom is read straight, with the translation of "shizuku", resulting in the full name of [yama]+[to]+[shizuku].

Puzzle Application[edit | edit source]

There are several ways rebuses can be presented in modern puzzles, with varying levels of adherence to traditional methods and the addition of outside symbols.

The most common method is the mathematical rebus. In mathematical rebuses, pictures are presented in between + and - symbols, to indicate the addition or subtraction of letters in the words those pictures represent. Over the course of the puzzle, this creates a string of letters that may or may not form words This method allows for more concrete answers, and leaves much less room for interpretation. If a picture is translated incorrectly the equation will not be able to proceed, like if a step requires the subtraction of a series of letters not present in the string at that point. Variants on the mathematical rebus can be made depending on whether solvers can only subtract words found continuously in the string, or if other interactions between pictures are allowed (such as a picture being placed inside a split picture to indicate the former being "sandwiched" by the latter).


Another common rebus type is the phonetic rebus. Unlike mathematical rebuses, phonetic rebuses focus on the way words are pronounced rather than the way that they're spelled to construct their solutions. While it's possible for phonetic rebuses to use aspects of mathematical rebuses, such as addition symbols, it's much more common to simply string components together. Subtraction is also not as common A common version of phonetic rebuses is the game Mad Gabs, which requires players to read a string of words that almost sound like a proper phrase when said out loud.

An Dingbat puzzle with the answer "An Inside Job".

One last rebus is the Dingbat, named after the newspaper puzzle (and later board game) invented by Paul Sellers. These rebuses focus less on images, and more on created arrangements of words to represent common phrases. While the prioritization of word usage over image usage would seem to go against the nature of rebuses, the intent behind the puzzle being a creative visual representation of words and phrases fits well with the original concept of rebuses. These puzzles often rely heavily on adjectives and prepositions to represent their solutions, particularly IN and ON.

[PRESTP] --> REST IN PEACE (The word REST in two Ps)

It is also possible for some of these types of rebus to be combined, such as using phonetic elements in a mathematical rebus (like using an eye to represent the letter I) or using Dingbat representations of prepositions in either phonetic or mathematical rebuses. These crossovers may cause confusion when determining what type of rebus a given puzzle or clue is, but overall looking at how a solution is obtained (via string manipulation, pronunciation, or arrangement of full words) usually produces a consistent result.

Strategy[edit | edit source]

Identification[edit | edit source]

Dingbats and mathematical rebuses are relatively easy to spot in puzzles. Dingbats traditionally contain words within other words, inconsistent font sizes and shapes, and generally look "like dingbats". Meanwhile, mathematical rebuses can usually be ID'd by the presence of +s and -s among short words or identifiable images. Both of these can be confirmed by attempting to solve them, as dingbats usually solve to clear words and phrases, and mathematical rebuses will slowly begin to form identifiable words/phrases as their "equations" are solved. A lack of clear solutions in either of these cases is a good indicator that they're not quite as they seem.

Phonetic rebuses are the most difficult to ID, as they have the fewest restrictions on style. They can come in the form of strings of images, or as a selection of words that don't form proper sentences, but until one starts to read them out loud there's no concrete way to say that a set of information forms a phonetic rebus.

Solving[edit | edit source]

Mathematical rebuses are the most analytical of the rebuses, and therefore have the most analytical solve paths. Assuming a particular rebus requires figuring out the proper equation pieces, either via images or crossword clues. Solve what you can, and then attempt to work from the start. When encountering gaps, look at the steps ahead. If a subtraction step follows, you can use that information to determine some of the letters in the missing section (but only if the letters that need to be subtracted aren't all contained in what is already present). Similarly, if a series of word additions leaves an identifiable word in the middle of the string (bridging the gap between two original pieces), it's possible that it will be removed by a subtraction step, and solvers should try to identify what step that word fits with. This gap-filling strategy, along with liberal googling and reverse-image-searching should lead solvers to the proper solution.

To do TO DO

Notable Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Puzzle-Regarding Vehicle (MITMH 2013) (web) - A combination of cryptic crossword clues and traditional rebuses, allowing some words to act in place of the usual plus/minus symbols, as well as other common cryptic clue operations.
  • Radical Rebuses (MITMH 2021) (web) - Instead of traditional rebuses, uses pictures representing Chinese radicals arranged in a way that, when the characters are arranged in the same way, creates a new character. Perhaps unintentional, but this acts as a nod to the idea that the rebus principle is part of the reason that the Chinese language is constructed the way that it is.
  • The Investigation (MITMH 2022) (web) - A rare rebus-based meta, this puzzle uses a mix of images and feeder answers to form a long rebus sequence resulting in the final answer. Notably, the puzzle does not pre-place the images/puzzles, so solvers must use logic (and a color-coding system) to figure out where each of the words belongs in the sequence.

See Also[edit | edit source]