leitmotif. motif

Last week, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Neil Serven replied.

Q: motif means “a dominant idea or central theme.” leitmotif means “a dominant recurring theme.” So, how do these two words differ?

A: In extended use, “motif” and “leitmotif” have very similar meanings.

“Motif” suggests an idea that recurs like a pattern (as in design or architecture), but there is enough extended use that flattens the word to mean simply “theme”:

In retrospect, it is now clear that the alien invasion motif in 1950s science fiction movies reflected the Cold War atmosphere of the period.—Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound, 2001

Apart from giving us a great deal of new information on the Holloways, Ricketts argues very convincingly for a motif of abandonment in much of Kipling’s writing, including the Jungle Books, Kim and Captains Courageous.—Elizabeth Lowry, Times Literary Supplement, 19 Feb 1999

“Leitmotif” is a term originating from opera; it referred to a recurring melody that played along with a character or allusion to a theme whenever one or the other appeared on stage. Its extended use doesn’t follow up from the original as fluidly as “motif” does, but it does share with “motif” the meaning of simply “a recurring theme”:

Conspiracies are a leitmotif of talk radio, even its organizing principle-the bond that unites millions of voters, each in a separate car, driving and listening and, from time to time, pounding the steering wheel in frustration.—James Ridgeway, Village Voice, 14 June 1994

Ms. Silverthorne suggests in “Sojourner at Cross Creek” that a leitmotif of Rawlings’s life was betrayal or the fear of it, an anxiety that developed following the end of her first marriage, in 1933, and lasting the rest of her life.—Jerome Griswold, New York Times Book Review, 20 Nov. 1988

I would say that the two words are practically synonymous, though “leitmotif,” due to its origins and particularly its ties to narrative, might be more likely to be found in literary or academic contexts. I think more than a few writers use it as a fancy-sounding substitute for “motif.”

No comments:

Post a Comment