How Rebus Puzzles Work

This tobacco advertisement from 1879 features several rebus puzzles.
This tobacco advertisement from 1879 features several rebus puzzles.
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In 1958, NBC introduced the game show "Concentration," based on the popular children's game also known as Memory. In the children's game, pairs of matching cards are placed face down in a grid. Each player gets to flip over two cards. If the cards match, the player keeps the cards and goes again. If they don't, the two cards are turned back over and all players must remember where each card is located so they can make future matches. The twist introduced with the game show is that as each matching pair is removed, a puzzle is slowly revealed underneath. For many Americans, the show served as their first introduction to rebus puzzles.

The classic definition of a rebus puzzle is a pictogram representing a common word or phrase. The word rebus comes from the Latin phrase "non verbis, sed rebus," meaning "not by words, but by things" [source:]. The solution to the first part of the advertisement pictured reads "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Interestingly, some written languages, like Egyptian hieroglyphics and even Chinese are based on the rebus principle [source: Noth]. Linguists believe that the ancient roots of Chinese probably began with characters that looked like the object they represented. Over time, the same characters began to be used for words that sounded the same as the original (homophones). For example, a character that looks like an eye could also be used to represent the word "I." Over the centuries, Chinese characters evolved until they no longer resembled those original drawings.

Today, teachers and language therapists use rebus images to help people who are learning English as a second language. By inserting images next to new vocabulary words or asking students to draw their own images, students can make quicker associations with new words [source: Connected Mathematics Project].

In addition to the classic pictogram type of rebus puzzle, there is also a more modern version that treats words themselves as a sort of image or object. In these types of rebus puzzles, words are arranged, jumbled, multiplied and redirected in order to convey a new meaning. For example, here's the phrase "down to earth" as represented by a modern rebus puzzle:


Since these types of rebus puzzles are a little more challenging to solve than the classic pictogram version, we're going to give some more examples -- along with some helpful tips for solving them -- on the next page.