Lexical Investigations: Motley

motley, motley foolThe exact origin of motley is uncertain, but it’s likely to have come from the Middle English word mote, meaning “speck.” It makes sense then that mottled and speckled have similar meanings. Mottle is actually a back formation of motley.

In the sixteenth century, the multicolored clothing worn by a fool or court jester became known as a motley. The phrase “motley fool” harkens back to this costume, and phrases such as “motley-minded” imply that one’s mind is foolish rather than multicolored.

The phrase “motley crew” appeared in the eighteenth century referring to the ragtag crew of a ship. Today this is still a popular phrase and can refer to any non-uniform group. A popular storyline in fiction is for a motley crew of soldiers or athletes to overcome a more professional and equipped opposing side, or for a group of people with little in common to come together.

Popular References:

1980s rock band Mötley Crüe

1976–1999 comic strip Motley’s Crew

Movies with “motley crew” story lines:

The Breakfast Club

The Mighty Ducks

Read our previous post about the word sustainability and when it became associated with environmentalism.

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