mot·​ley | \ ˈmät-lē How to pronounce motley (audio) \

Definition of motley

 (Entry 1 of 3)

1 : variegated in color a motley coat
2 : made up of many different people or things a motley crowd a motley collection of junk



Definition of motley (Entry 2 of 3)

1 : a woolen fabric of mixed colors made in England between the 14th and 17th centuries
2 : a garment made of motley especially : the characteristic dress of the professional fool
4 : a mixture especially of incongruous elements


biographical name
Mot·​ley | \ ˈmät-lē How to pronounce Motley (audio) \

Definition of Motley (Entry 3 of 3)

John Lothrop 1814–1877 American historian

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Motley Might Have Roots in Middle English


Motley made its debut as an English adjective in the 14th century, but etymologists aren't completely sure where it came from. Many think it probably derived from the Middle English mot, meaning "mote" or "speck." The word is also used as a noun identifying a multicolored fabric, a garment made from such a fabric, or-perhaps the best known sense of all-the fool who often wore such outfits in the European courts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Examples of motley in a Sentence

Adjective a motley collection of junk a motley crew of musicians Noun the motleys with their colorful outfits a motley of old junk stored in the attic
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Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective The medium that colors the exhibition most strongly, however, is sound—a fact that was made obvious at last Thursday’s raucous exhibition opening where Ogunlesi’s motley crew of friends and fans were out in full force. Vogue, "Mowalola Launches Her Anarchic London Exhibition With the Help of Skepta and Yves Tumor," 9 Dec. 2019 Anger at corruption binds AMLO’s motley coalition, which ranges from left-wing activists to evangelicals. The Economist, "AMLO uses his anti-corruption drive to gain power and scare critics," 30 Nov. 2019 In Shanghai, that repression was launched with a bloody purge on April 12, 1927, conducted with the help of a motley army assembled by the omnipresent, triad-like Green Gang and its powerful chieftain Du Yuesheng. Mishi Saran, Quartz, "Can Hong Kong’s fighting spirit endure? An answer might lie in China’s own Communist history," 19 Sep. 2019 The motley crew of fashion plates moseyed over to an open-air tent for a lavish feast prepared by Snooze Eatery, Hilton Americas Houston, Pat Greer's Kitchen, Common Bond Cafe & Bakery, and La Table. Amber Elliott, Houston Chronicle, "Recipe for Success serves Neiman Marcus fashion, brunch and Tito's Vodka at Hope Farms," 13 Nov. 2019 Here is the motley collection of folks who are invested in making these clothes. Robin Givhan, Washington Post, "American fashion is drowning in a sea of leggings and gimmicks. Brandon Maxwell has a solution.," 9 Sep. 2019 Many investors saw the motley collection as epitomizing everything wrong with being a landlord—the deterioration of the properties, the hassles of maintaining a far-flung portfolio. Shawn Tully, Fortune, "Meet the A.I. Landlord That’s Building a Single-Family-Home Empire," 21 June 2019 Lining the hallways of Chugiak High was the entire student body — a motley crew of Mustangs good, bad and awkward — standing and cheering in support of their beloved Bulldog. Matt Tunseth, Anchorage Daily News, "High school stands behind ‘Bulldog’ security guard as she copes with breast cancer," 31 Oct. 2019 The shift in attitudes regarding climate change on the part of at least some oil majors reflects pressure from a motley crew encompassing nervous fund managers to social media-savvy children. Liam Denning | Bloomberg, Washington Post, "Edison Figured Out Climate Action 100 Years Ago," 31 Oct. 2019 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun My father was a motley of sound, a funk band with bottomless drums and songs that knew nothing of fatigue. David Roderick,, "State Lines: Rudy Francisco’s ‘In the Voice of Hip Hop’," 6 July 2018 This motley of topics swirls and eddies and reforms, with exchanges of goofy insults and gossipy asides about whoever happens to be absent from the field at the moment. Ben Brantley, New York Times, "Review: ‘The Wolves’: A Pack of Female Warriors, Each Determined to Score," 11 Sep. 2016

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

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First Known Use of motley


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for motley


Middle English, perhaps from mot mote, speck


Middle English, probably from motley entry 1

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Time Traveler for motley

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The first known use of motley was in the 14th century

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Last Updated

25 Dec 2019

Cite this Entry

“Motley.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 20 January 2020.

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More Definitions for motley


How to pronounce Motley (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of motley

usually disapproving : made up of many different people or things


mot·​ley | \ ˈmät-lē How to pronounce motley (audio) \

Kids Definition of motley

: composed of various often unlike kinds or parts a motley collection of junk

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More from Merriam-Webster on motley

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for motley

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with motley

Spanish Central: Translation of motley

Nglish: Translation of motley for Spanish Speakers

Comments on motley

What made you want to look up motley? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


not to be intimidated or subdued

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