A BBC commentator recently referred to the world economic picture as ‘mottled,” which he explained as meaning having some bright spots and some dark. The word can be traced to the 17th century and is a back-formation from the word motley, a 14th-century word whose origin, as dictionaries sheepishly admit, is obscure, but is probably from the Middle English mot, meaning “speck.” Motley means having diverse colors or variegated, sometimes incongruous elements.
Motley was the design traditionally worn by court jesters and by the character of Harlequin in commedia dell’arte. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jaques expatiates upon a “motley fool” that he had met, concluding, “Motley’s the only wear.” Motley fabric, made of green, red, and blue patchwork, set jesters apart from others at court and protected them from punishment when they irreverently spoke truth to power. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Wanda Sykes, and others of their clan might want to consider the prudence of wearing coats of many colors when they’re working.
Motley was the name adopted by three noted British costume designers, Margaret and Sophie Harris and Elizabeth Wilmot, who flourished in London and on Broadway from the 1930s to the 1960s. “Costumes by Motley” was a frequent credit in theatre programs.
In the 1980s a hard rock band called Suite was formed by Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee. Noted for hard living, disreputable attire, heavily tattooed bodies, and tasteless material, they were referred to by another band as a “motley looking crew.” They were apparently flattered by this sobriquet and decided to change their name to “Mötley Crüe,” adding irrelevant umlauts in tribute to Löwenbräu beer, then their beverage of choice.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a motley reputation himself, evident in his fascination with the diacritical marks, the umlaut and its identical twin, the diaeresis.
The umlaut and the diaeresis
Are simply pairs of dots.
And you could write a lengthy thesis
On the use of these small spots.
The umlauts bring the Germans joy
And thankfully allow
Beer-halls to serve them Löwenbräu
Instead of Loewenbrau.
The diaeresis may look showy,
But it makes sure you know
A lovely, lilting name like Chloë
Is not pronounced like Joe.