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[moh-teef] /moʊˈtif/
a recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.
a distinctive and recurring form, shape, figure, etc., in a design, as in a painting or on wallpaper.
a dominant idea or feature:
the profit motif of free enterprise.
Origin of motif
From French, dating back to 1840-50; See origin at motive Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.
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Examples from the Web for motifs
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • Richter at the piano begins a fanciful overture where the motifs of Tristan and Isolde mingle with foreign airs.

    Wagner at Home Judith Gautier
  • He worked at an overture which had originated out of the motifs of Bermann's opera.

    The Road to the Open Arthur Schnitzler
  • These motifs probably are the result of copying from weaving or quilt pattern books of the late 19th century.

    The Penitente Moradas of Abiqui Richard E. Ahlborn
  • Then she added, "As I was deprived of the evening, will you not let me hear some of the motifs of the opera?"

    My Recollections Jules Massenet
  • It is such a chance, for Frau Burg-Schmidt will explain the motifs to me, and tell me when to look for them.

    The Four Corners Abroad Amy Ella Blanchard
  • He contradicted himself by plunging into an exposition of motifs.

    Ann Veronica H. G. Wells
  • But her motifs were now taken from history, not actual life.

British Dictionary definitions for motifs


a distinctive idea, esp a theme elaborated on in a piece of music, literature, etc
Also motive. a recurring form or shape in a design or pattern
a single added piece of decoration, such as a symbol or name on a jumper, sweatshirt, etc
Word Origin
C19: from French. See motive
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for motifs



"theme, predominant feature," 1848, from French motif "dominant idea, theme" (see motive).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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motifs in Culture
motif [(moh-teef)]

In literature, art, or music, a recurring set of words, shapes, colors, or notes. In the poem “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe, for example, the word nevermore is a motif appearing at the end of each stanza. Likewise, the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven are a motif that is developed and reshaped throughout the work.

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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