motif

noun mo·tif \ mō-ˈtēf \

Definition of motif

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

play \-ˈtē-fik, -ˈti-\ adjective

Examples of motif in a Sentence

  1. … a hip awareness of its own cheesy implausibility, right down to the music: The thunderously orchestrated score uses "Itsy Bitsy Spider" as a motif. People29 July 2002
  2. 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. CantorGilligan Unbound2001
  3. 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 BucherESPN28 May 2001
  4. 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 SeabrookNew Yorker20 Sept. 1999
  5. The wallpaper has a flower motif.

  6. the motif of mute figures standing in lonely isolation is a recurrent one in the artist's works

Recent Examples of motif from the Web

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'motif.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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.

Origin and Etymology of motif

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

Other Fine Arts Terms


MOTIF Defined for English Language Learners

motif

Definition of motif for English Language Learners

  • : something (such as an important idea or subject) that is repeated throughout a book, story, etc.

  • : a single or repeated design or pattern


Medical Dictionary

motif

noun mo·tif \ mō-ˈtēf \

medical Definition of motif

: 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 NettingScience News7 Apr. 2001
  • Only about half these genes have recognizable motifs, or DNA-sequence patterns, that suggest possible functions.
  • —Alan E. Guttmacher and Francis S. CollinsThe New England Journal of Medicine7 Nov. 2002


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