An Eye for an I: The Rebus as an Historical Form of Emoji

O'Hagan, Lauren Alex (2023). An Eye for an I: The Rebus as an Historical Form of Emoji. DiscourseNet: Collaborative Working Paper Series(9)



This paper adopts a transhistorical approach to the study of the emoji, placing it within a broader historical trajectory by focusing on an earlier form of communication with which it has much in common: the rebus. The rebus is a puzzle or visual pun in which words or syllables within a sentence are replaced by images that serve as homophones for the missing text. Here, I outline the origins of the rebus in the ancient world, its resurgence in the Renaissance and continued growth in the 19th century, as well as the range of contexts in which it was used – from heraldry and book inscriptions to letters and advertisements. I argue that, like the emoji, the rebus requires a certain type of literacy to be correctly interpreted and is a prime example of how we engage with the world primarily through our eyes. It, therefore, highlights the longstanding importance of visuality in languaging.

Viewing alternatives

Download history

Item Actions