Friday, September 22, 2006

The Daily Hump: Mötley

Okay, okay...there really isn't an umlaut in the word motley, it's purely a heavy metal gimmick meant to give a band's logo a Teutonic quality. As Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins noted "It's like a pair of eyes. You're looking at the umlaut, and it's looking at you."

Now that we have that out of the way, have you really ever given thought to the word motley...motley...you know, really hump the word mentally until you realize it's rather strange? It means "heterogenous" or "having a great amount of variation." In the late 14th century there was an Anglo-Norman word motlei meaning "variegated" or, in the noun form, "variegated cloth" (and was also the name of the outfit worn by a harlequin, hence motley fool). If we attempt to look further back in time the list of potential candidates for motley roots is rather...er...motley. The OED suggests three: medley, motey and mote. Let's take a gander at each.

In regards to medley the OED is specifically referring to a rare definition where it means a type of cloth made of dyed wool, which was frequently multi-colored, hence the name. This sense, in turn, is related to an obscure word, mellay, meaning hand-to-hand combat which is closely related to our very common word melee, meaning a confused violent free-for-all. Melee comes the part participle of the Old French mesler, meaning "to mix." We've seen this root before...here.

Motey is an obscure word that refers to a type of earth used as a pigment which apparently created a speckled appearance when applied. We see references to it from the mid 14th century up through the early 16th century. It's believed, but not confirmed, that the word is related to our third candidate mote.

If you're thinking of a large water-filled ditch surrounding a castle, then you're thinking of a moat, not a mote. A mote is a speck or particle, like the kind you see floating in a beam of light or that annoying speck that gets in your eye or throat, and is a cognate of the West Frisian mot meaning "peat dust." Interestingly, it's possible that mote is related to the Swedish word for dirt, which gave us our word smut. As well, it's possible mote is related to the Germanic base of what became our word moth, those pesky insects that reduce cloth to small fragments.

Ultimately, as with many words, we'll never have a definitive root for motley, just a theory; yet, it's amusing that Mötley Crüe chose a name whose roots are most likely buried in harlequin outfits, fighting and dirt.

On second thought, it's perfect.

motley [OED]
motey [OED]
mote [OED]

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:: posted by David, 8:32 AM

2 Comments:

Similar in meaning to catholic (little c)? You should hump that.
Blogger Loocite, at 3:38 PM  
I can smell your cockiness.
Blogger blevin, at 10:22 PM  

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