The Grammarphobia Blog

A fool, a fool, a motley fool

Q: I tried to call you on the air but couldn’t get through, so I’m e-mailing my question. What is the origin of all those “motley” expressions: “motley fool,” “motley crew,” and “mötley crüe”?

A: As you probably suspect, all three are fruit of the same family tree. The mother of them all is the word “motley,” which first showed up in English in the 1300s.

We don’t know for sure where “motley” comes from, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it’s related to the Anglo-Norman word motlé, meaning variegated, which may be derived from the Old French medlee, or conflict.

“Motley” originally referred to cloth woven from threads of several colors. Here’s a late 14th-century quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “In motlee, and hy on horse he sat; / Upon his head a Flandrish bever hat.”

From its earliest days, the word was used as both a noun for the cloth and an adjective for something multicolored like the cloth. By the 15th century, it was also used as a verb meaning to give something a multicolored appearance.

In the late 16th century, the noun came to mean the multicolored outfit worn by a court jester or fool. And in the early 17th century it was used to refer to the fool himself, as in this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110 (1609): “Alas ‘tis true, I have gone here and there, / And made my selfe a motley to the view.”

By the 17th century, the noun and adjective were also being used to refer, often negatively, to a hodgepodge of people or things. That’s pretty much the usual meaning of “motley” today.

Churchill, in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956), uses the word in that way when he refers to “a motley, ill-knit collection of states, flung together by the chance of a single marriage, and lacking unity both of purpose and strength.”

As for the phrase “motley crew,” the earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1827 comic poem by George Canning: “But if, amongst this motley crew, / One man of real parts we view.”

Another early citation is from the 1848 diary of Henry Greville, a British diplomat: “This motley crew … dressed more ludicrously than any masks on a Mardi-gras.”

As for the heavy-metal band Mötley Crüe, the guitarist Mick Mars apparently came up with the name, thanks to hearing another group referred to as “a motley looking crew.” This comes from Wikipedia, which attributes the umlauts to a German beer that the band members were drinking at the time.

Interestingly, one of the early spellings of “crew,” dating from 1455, is indeed “crue.” No umlauts, though!

As for “motley fool” (and its modern incarnation as a financial website), the first published reference for the phrase is in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1616): “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest, / A motley fool; a miserable world!”

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