• A significant theme, subject, or idea that is consistently repeated in or woven throughout the foundation of something, especially an artistic piece
  • Medicine: A repeating structural pattern of biological elements on the molecular level


Connoisseurs of art, this one's for you! Motif is a word that is most commonly used in creative fields like visual arts, literature, and design. The term describes any key idea that is emphasized in a creative piece through consistent repetition. The depiction of a motif can be obvious, such as in a series of paintings that all portray a common theme, e.g. farming communities. However, they are also frequently understated, like very slight gradations in the blue colors of a room that are meant to allude to the ocean. Often, a motif will form a subtle basis for the work of which it is a part; in this case, the motif is usually a key concept that the artist or designer feels is essential and wishes to represent through the immediate sensory experiences engendered by the piece.

In the fields of interior design and landscaping, motifs often have a practical use. Rather than representing a critical idea, as in the artistic sense, the use of motif in these areas can sometimes describe a common set of elements that bring up a specific emotional response. For instance, arranging furniture in certain ways can alternatively create feelings of space or intimacy; similarly, a motif of primary colors in a flowerbed might be intended to make visitors feel excited.

Another, much less common usage of motif is in medicine and life sciences. In this area, motif describes a repeating or idiosyncratic pattern in a biological structure, such as an amino acid chain.

Example:Although the film's motif of running water was meant to symbolize the inevitability of change, it also provided a haunting soundtrack.

Example: To reflect his interest in science, the young boy's bedroom had been decorated with an outer-space motif.

Example: A recurring arrangement of nucleotides in a sample of DNA is known in biology as a sequence motif.


English borrows motif directly from French, where the word means "a dominant subject or idea." The French term traces its ancestry along the Romantic family tree to the Medieval Latin word motivus, which means "moving or driving." From here the word evolved into the Old French motif, which at the time meant "drive or determination." The word would then split into two branches, one of which would eventually become the familiar English word motive, which along with its more common meaning also describes an intermittently repeating phrase in a piece of art (unlike motif, though, this meaning of motive is specific to music). The other branch would become the current French and, by the mid-nineteenth century, English understanding of motif as an important recurring theme.

In Literature

From Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex: a Novel:

Direct your attention to the wallpaper with its Revolutionary War motif. A repeating pattern showing the famous trio of drummer boy, fife player, and lame old man.

Here, motif refers to a repeating visual pattern on the wallpaper.


  • Many artists are motivated to create motifs in their work.
  • Motivating motif on the wall


Art, Design, Theme, Creativity, French

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of motif. Did you use motif in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.