motif

noun

mo·​tif mō-ˈtēf How to pronounce motif (audio)
1
: a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts)
especially : a dominant idea or central theme
Ms. Cisneros doesn't present too many nice guys here, and the perfidy of men is a motif in several of the stories. Bebe Moore Campbell
2
: a single or repeated design or color
a decorative motif
Animals and flowers as well as trees decorate sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Chinese panels, and each motif had its own meaning.Nancy Berliner
3
biochemistry : a distinctive, usually recurrent, molecular sequence (as of amino acids or base pairs) or structural element (as of secondary protein structures)
These RNA molecules have an intriguing structural motif, absent in normal RNA, that recognizes an amino acid and chemically binds to it, forming a novel type of RNA enzyme, or ribozyme.Jessa Netting
Only about half these genes have recognizable motifs, or DNA-sequence patterns, that suggest possible functions.Alan E. Guttmacher and Francis S. Collins
motific adjective

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What exactly is a motif? And how is it different from a leitmotif?

In works of art, a motif is an important and noticeable element or feature that typically appears throughout the work. It can relate to the theme, or it can be the dominant or central idea itself. Concepts like betrayal and forgiveness can be motifs, for example, but so can particular images and sounds, such as trees or bells. Motif is also commonly applied in design, where it typically refers to a single or repeated pattern or color. A piece of fabric might have a floral motif; a room may have a black and white motif.

Motif can also appear in scientific contexts, especially in biochemistry, where it refers to a distinctive molecular sequence or structural element that is usually recurrent.

Leitmotif (also and formerly more commonly spelled leitmotiv) has its origins in opera, and is especially associated with Wagnerian opera. The word is from the German words leit and Motif, which translate respectively as "leading" and "motive." In opera, a leitmotif is a recurring melody that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation. The term is now applied in other kinds of music, sometimes with a meaning very close to the original: "The Imperial March" that is heard in the Star Wars film franchise whenever Darth Vader appears on screen, for example, is a modern example of leitmotif.

Leitmotif also has extended use that treads the same territory as motif. It's not a common word, but when it is applied it often refers to a dominant recurring theme, as when an image consistently used in an artist's works is described as a leitmotif. Note that some people object when leitmotif is modified by a word like main or dominant, on the grounds that since German leit means "leading" the phrase is redundant. English speakers using leitmotif in English, however, may choose to ignore the objection since leit does not mean "leading" in English.

Examples of motif in a Sentence

… a hip awareness of its own cheesy implausibility, right down to the music: The thunderously orchestrated score uses "Itsy Bitsy Spider" as a motif. People, 29 July 2002
In retrospect, it is now clear that the alien invasion motif in 1950s science fiction movies reflected the Cold War atmosphere of the period. Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound, 2001
The first-class scowl, shaved head and scars on his right shoulder and biceps fit the tough-guy motif, but it's a facade. Ric Bucher, ESPN, 28 May 2001
The branding is done by combining a commercial trademark with one or another subcultural motif, a subculture the buyer belongs to or wants to join: surfing, skateboarding,  … John Seabrook, New Yorker, 20 Sept. 1999
The wallpaper has a flower motif. the motif of mute figures standing in lonely isolation is a recurrent one in the artist's works
Recent Examples on the Web And microscopic traces have revealed that floral motifs once bedecked Greek marble statues. Ashley Strickland, CNN, 29 June 2024 There had been kawaii art since the 1603 to 1868 Edo period, when cute motifs in Japanese prints and paintings abounded, including cats acting like people and puppies caked in snow frolicking under trees. Charlie Campbell, TIME, 27 June 2024 The foamy shapes recall solid prewar sculptures by Naum Gabo, Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp, while the kinetic machine creates ephemeral drawings in space, a motif of central importance in Western art after World War II. Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times, 27 June 2024 In the home’s communal spaces, Geremia found a compromise in soft color, bold shapes, floral motifs, and lots of natural wood. Elizabeth Fazzare, Architectural Digest, 27 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for motif 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'motif.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

French, motive, motif, from Middle French — more at motive

First Known Use

1848, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of motif was in 1848

Dictionary Entries Near motif

Cite this Entry

“Motif.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/motif. Accessed 13 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition

motif

noun
mo·​tif mō-ˈtēf How to pronounce motif (audio)
1
: an important and usually repeating idea or theme in a work of art
2
: a feature in a decoration or design
a flower motif in wallpaper

Medical Definition

motif

noun
mo·​tif mō-ˈtēf How to pronounce motif (audio)
: a distinctive usually recurrent molecular sequence (as of amino acids or base pairs) or structural elements (as of secondary protein structures)
These RNA molecules have an intriguing structural motif, absent in normal RNA, that recognizes an amino acid and chemically binds to it, forming a novel type of RNA enzyme, or ribozyme.Jessa Netting, Science News
Only about half these genes have recognizable motifs, or DNA-sequence patterns, that suggest possible functions.Alan E. Guttmacher and Francis S. Collins, The New England Journal of Medicine

More from Merriam-Webster on motif

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