The History of the Rebus

A ‘rebus’ is a puzzle where a word, or part of a word, is represented by a picture. The picture can be an exact interpretation of the word or a visual pun which, when read correctly, constructs the word.

The origins of the rebus date back to fifteenth-century Europe, when the creation and publication of books of riddles and word puzzles became widespread. Magazines, almanacs and even high-brow literary journals would publish word puzzles for the entertainment of their readers. Many famous writers, poets and politicians throughout history, including Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Horatio Walpole and William Cowper were known to enjoy solving word puzzles, as well as creating puzzles for the amusement of their contemporaries. Rebuses nowadays are usually found in coats of arms or in activity books for children.

When used in a coat of arms, the rebus hints at the name of the owner, for example, William Shakespeare’s coat of arms contains a spear. This practise, known as ‘canting’, was very popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and is still used by members of the British royal family today – Princess Beatrice of York has a pattern of three bees (‘bees thrice’) on her personal coat of arms.

 

History of the rebus