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 There is no coherent political platform that appeals to everyone in this motley group, so candidates instead rely on their amenable personalities to gin up something approaching enthusiasm. John Patrick Leary, The New Republic, "The Airy Ambivalence of the Moderate Politician," 24 Apr. 2020 Sometimes this motley group of guards calls in reinforcements — cops in protective gear with Tasers. Alexandra Stevenson, New York Times, "An American in a Locked Down Chinese Town: ‘Everyone Here Is So Bored’," 10 Mar. 2020 Once a fishing trawler, the Bebop now hauls Jet Black, Faye Valentine, and Spike Spiegel, a motley crew of intergalactic bounty hunters, across the galaxy. Troy Patterson, The New Yorker, "The Best Television Shows to Stream Now," 6 May 2020 This motley crew, which calls itself the Ferndale T-Rex Walking Club, takes its unannounced strolls through neighborhoods. Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press, "Secret strolling club forms in Ferndale to bring joy during coronavirus pandemic," 25 Apr. 2020 The rest of the motley cast hardly inspires trust or confidence. Kevin D. Williamson, National Review, "Bring Impeachment into the Light," 24 Oct. 2019 Like catcher, the keystone doesn’t offer much in terms of desirable options this winter, instead presenting a motley cast of veterans, utility men and career backups. Jon Tayler,, "The 31st Team: How Many Games Would a Team Composed Entirely of Free Agents Win?," 25 Jan. 2018 Moore’s shifting denials, dog whistles and motley cast of campaign surrogates completed the picture of a remarkably terrible candidate and campaign. Aaron Blake, Washington Post, "Winners and losers from 2017, the year in politics," 1 Jan. 2018 Naturally, Amazon is the place to check first, as the online retail giant offers new deals each day on a motley of different products. Isabelle Kagan, USA TODAY, "The 5 best Amazon deals you can get this Tuesday," 18 Feb. 2020 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

28 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Motley.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 8 Jul. 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

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