Daily Archives: April 11, 2012


R U 4 or ugNst cute-C text trix? Do they seem NOv8ive or SN9 and LlitR8?

Well, they may be cloying in their way, and occasionally strained. But even allowing that a rebus abuser bruises or rubs the wrong way, it is both inevitable and useful – and, at least for some, fun – that any language should have words that sound like other words or combinations of other words.

Rebus refers to more than just using letters and numbers to stand in for similar-sounding syllables, of course, though it does indeed include the F U N E M N X with which my father used to torture breakfast waitresses. (“F U N E M N X? Have you any ham and eggs?”) A rebus can, and typically does, include pictures of things that sound like the words or syllables in question: a picture of an eye for I, a picture of a bee for be, perhaps a picture of a female sheep for you, and so one. It sometimes also uses pictures of the actual things in question – a house for house, for instance.

I’m sure you encountered rebuses as a kid. They’re games that can help children learn language while putting the fun in phonetics. But rebuses have also had adult uses. They sometimes show up in heraldry and as a means of signature in artworks and architectural ornament: Lyhart might be a deer (hart) lying, Bolton an arrow (bolt) through a barrel (tun), and so forth.

They’re also important, at root, in why you’re even able to read this. Our alphabetic system of writing purports to represent individual sounds purely in the abstract, of course (though English’s system is erratic and capricious, and people often spell words according to how similar-seeming words are spelled – hence you see people writing kneck instead of neck because, after all, knee has a k). But that system evolved from a system (Egyptian hieroglyphics) wherein, first, certain things were represented by pictures of them, and then other things were for convenience represented by the symbols for things that sounded like them. And then the pictorial representations became more gradually abstracted, and were ultimately whittled down to representing single phonemes… at least ostensibly.

Not that the final whittling down is inevitable. Consider a language wherein certain things were represented by pictures of them (or of some pertinent aspect), and then other things came to be represented by combinations of pictures put together: one for something similar or identical in sound, and another for something similar in meaning. Sort of like putting an eye next to a person for “I” or a picture of a tank next to a picture of a smile for “thank”. And then perhaps over time the pictures would become more and more abstracted for ease of writing, to the point where sometimes the origin is not evident at all, but they still operate by a symbol-per-word (or -per-syllable) rule.

Which is a bit of a simplified description of how many Chinese characters came to being. Complex Chinese characters are typically formed on a sort of explained-rebus principle: one part for the sound, one for the sense. I have to tell you, it adds a layer of complexity to the learning of Chinese. But one thing it’s not is childish! The hieroglyphic and ideographic uses of the rebus principle do not hover between Jebus and Uncle Remus, as some of the more juvenile uses seem to. Indeed, these uses rebut that: the sounds of language are not mere rabbitting by rubes but rather reusable bits of verbal rebar, and not in the least rebarbative.

Oh, and should it be rebi? Is using rebuses the sign of an ignoramus? Certainly not. Rebus is not from a Latin masculine nominative singular, an -us that can become an -i; like omnibus, it is from a dative/ablative plural. (Ignoramus, meanwhile, comes from a conjugated verb.) When it is used as a nominative in English, it has been taken out of its native element and preserved in amber, as it were, and you have no choice but to use English inflections on it.

And why do we have this ablative Latin here? The standard explanation is that it is from the phrase non verbis sed rebus, “not by words but by things” – rebus is Latin for “by things”. Other related possibilities exist, but it is pretty certain that rebus, though we know it only by way of French, comes from Latin “by things”, re-bused to us; we get it on the rebound, as it were. In truth, though, it is not the things but just the pictures of the things that are used – we don’t need to go buy things to go “by things” or have picturesque language.