18 June 2013

Detective Inspector Rebus, what does your name mean?

Detective Inspector John Rebus is the star of the excellent detective novels created by the Scottish writer Ian Rankin. Did the inspector ever realise what his surname meant?

King’s College Cambridge found books of riddles and word puzzles that were published in the C16th e.g A Little Book of Riddles (1656). Anagrams and acrostics appeared in books and even high-brow literary journals got involved. Famous writers, poets and statesman such as Jonathan Swift, David Garrick, Horatio Walpole and William Cowper created puzzles for their own entertainment and the amusement of their clever contemporaries.

Jacob Levernier described visual puns, rebuses and codes in late medieval art where “a good pun was its own reword.” Evidence for patrons’ interest could be found in images that drew on witty and often scholarly word play. Creative homonyms and lively rebuses appeared in sculpture, painting and archit­ecture. But Lever­nier was specifically interested in studies that were applied to sculpture whose imagery and message could be correlated to their architectural space.

So what was a rebus? It was a visual pun or allusional device that used pictures to represent words, and especially parts of words. It was a favourite form of heraldic expression used from the late C15th to denote surnames. The ex­ample that most appealed was the rebus of Bishop Walter Lyhart of Nor­w­ich, con­sisting of a stag/hart lying down in water. “Hart” and “lying down” together represented Lyhart.

Sir Ralph Shelton's rebus in Norfolk

Sir Ralph Shelton rebuilt the church at Shelton in Norfolk and in his will of 1497, he asked that his personal devices appear on every roof corbel and niche, as well as the nave aisle windows. The rebus used an "R" plus a "shell" plus a "tun/barrel", together representing the patron of the church: R. Shelton

The rebus alluded to the name, profession or personality of the bearer, and said in Latin Non verbis, sed rebus i.e not by words but by objects. Of all professions, rebuses were most popular amongst churchmen. John Goodall gave the example of John Islip, Abbot of Westminster (1500-53) whose rebus showed an “eye” with a man “slipping” from a tree. 

There were many sculpted “owl” rebuses on the walls, ceiling and tomb in the chantry chapel of Bishop Oldham (d1519), in Exeter Cathedral. Some versions had the word “dom” on a scroll hanging from the owl’s mouth, just in case the viewer needed help in being to read the bishop’s surname. 

Canting arms were heraldic bearings that represented the bear­er's name in a visual pun or rebus eg for Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the arms contained images of “bows” and of “lions”. But a family might have a rebus as a personal identification device, entirely separate from the family’s formal armorials. For example in the mid C16th Sir Richard Weston’s arms used: Ermine, on a chief azure five bezants. His rebus, on the other hand, was a “tun” i.e a barrel, used to designate the last syllable of his surname. It was displayed on terracotta plaques on his Surrey mansion.

I presume that only the wealthy would require architectural sculpture carved on the front of their homes, and only the very literate would be interested in esoteric word games using three languages – Latin, French and English. The rebus might have been a common literary form of the age but Nils Thomasson published his book in 1661 that set out the rules for creating rebuses. Most importantly, a picture of an object could not be used to represent that word, since that took no intelligence to decipher at all

The V & A Museum has a modern example of a book plate.  This C19th rebus, consisting of “trees” and “bees” was a simple rendition of the author's name Ashbee.


In 2007, the author Ian Rankin appeared in an BBC Four series, exploring the origins of his famous character, Inspector John Rebus. Called Ian Rankin's Hidden Edinburgh, Rankin looked at the origins of the character and the events that led to his creation. I would be keen to know if Rankin discussed the hero’s surname. After all the enigmatic inspector was a complex character who was not fully understood by his colleagues or friends.


Student of History said...

John Hannah was a bit weedy. Ken Stott was more like Ian Rankin had written the character, I believe.

Hels said...


Yes! I had read most of the Rankin books before we did course on the History of British Crime Fiction. So then I watched ALL the tv series.

The Rebus character was certainly puzzling... an ambivalent relationship with his superiors at work? a history of drinking? smoking? family tragedy? who does he sleep with? what are his interests outside working hours?

the foto fanatic said...

Interesting and informative as always Hels.

We are a Rebus household. I love the Rankin novels and we watch the television series avidly. There is a marked difference between the Hannah and Stott versions of the puzzle-solving detective with Ken Stott ahead in providing a realistic interpretation of the character.

The Brits do crime shows so well. They don't use air-brushed actors and they don't have baddies spraying streets with automatic weapons.

My only cynical view is that it's a wonder there is anyone left in Britain given the huge number of murders that have to be solved each week on the telly :-)

Hels said...


couldn't agree more... British crime books/shows are sooo well done.

Plus another thing. I actually think Scottish crime fiction is a bit grimmer than crime fiction set south of the border, perhaps because of Scotland's colder weather, its poorer economy or its history of exploitation. Think of the mean streets of Glasgow in, say, Taggart.

Anonymous said...

My single name was Laverton, easy to present in rebus form. But what happened if an important person's name was Huffington-Smythe-Evans?

Hels said...


that is cute :)

We have to hope that witty and scholarly word play would appeal to a wider section of the population than just the aristocracy with three surnames.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I was interested to read of these rebuses in British heraldry. Many traditional Chinese symbols are rebuses of various expressions, mostly denoting good luck. When I get around to writing about the Lin house in Pan-chiao, I will include some examples of how these were incorporated into the architecture and gardens.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


I thought rebuses and other word games were something for literate adults to do on a cold winter's night. But once I started finding them in church sculpture and book plates, and once you located rebuses in Chinese architecture, it took on a whole new significance.

Hels said...

THE CORINTHIAN COLUMN blog has an excellent example of a rebus, an 18th century letter written from the devil to Sir Lawrence Dundas, and Sir Lawrence's reply. Very clever!

See http://corcol.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/the-writings-on-wall.html

kushka53 said...

In Series 2, Episode 2 Rebus remarks that when the Rebus' "got off the boat from Gdansk"--which is in Poland...so while the name may be Latin, or a foreshortening of a longer Polish name, the Inspector's family origins are Polish.

Hels said...


it makes perfect sense... when Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians etc moved to Western Europe and beyond, they took their family names with them. My immediate family kept their long Russian surname in full, but many of the cousins reduced it to either a 4- or 5-lettered surname.