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.


  1. Mahad -  June 7, 2014 - 6:25 am

    Really, u were students , u could have been A+ class. This is a quite an educative theme.

  2. shasheta -  September 9, 2013 - 10:59 am

    It’s always very interesting to know the Lexical and Investigations, thanks for that.

  3. Lanna -  September 9, 2013 - 7:47 am

    … and then there is the time-honoured English rendering of the opening aria in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, “Vesti la giubba”: “On with the motley”.

  4. Ntombizodwa -  September 9, 2013 - 4:47 am

    Interesting indee!

  5. jay -  September 6, 2013 - 9:21 am

    Here in Newfoundland, the word “motley” is often referred to something or someone that is ugly or unpleasant to look at.

  6. yelelofga -  September 6, 2013 - 12:58 am

    THis Is I DoN’t KnoW.

  7. ED -  September 5, 2013 - 9:05 pm

    I first learned the word motley as a modifier of crew describing the assortment of different seafarers in the crew of Odysseus, as he set sail for home. I do not know the original Greek word translated as motley.Anyone have the citation and explanation?

  8. Talitha -  September 5, 2013 - 6:24 pm


  9. geoge lauer -  September 5, 2013 - 6:02 pm

    I thought our remark was gone. We think hundreds of thousands never leave you all a good word. We are in that group. You all are A+ so a word or two now and then should do it. gml

  10. geoge lauer -  September 5, 2013 - 5:57 pm

    I am one of hundreds of thousands who never hit on such as these. You website is A+ so this one time. gml

  11. keisha -  September 5, 2013 - 11:56 am

    me gusta este website porque es impotante

  12. Bill Stewart -  September 5, 2013 - 4:48 am

    Another ‘motley crew’ movie would be “The Guns of Navarone.”

  13. Susan -  September 4, 2013 - 7:37 am

    Many people may not know, but the court jester was far from a fool. He was generally allowed to poke fun at the king and the court under the guise of being a fool, but the point was often sharply made nonetheless.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top