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 Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Related Words for motifs

pattern, concept, logo, subject, design, idea, structure, notion

Examples from the Web for motifs

Contemporary Examples of motifs

Historical Examples of motifs

  • The motifs of these operas are sentiment, tragedy, and humour.

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

    The Road to the Open

    Arthur Schnitzler

  • 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

  • But her motifs were now taken from history, not actual life.

  • The eighteenth century was apparently coquetting only with Eastern motifs.

    Musical Portraits

    Paul Rosenfeld

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 for motif

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

Word Origin and History for motifs



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

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

motifs in Culture



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 New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.