Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
During the Enlightenment a novel aesthetic concept took hold in the European mind. Operating under the German name Motiv, the French motif, and the Italian motivo, it embraced the idea of a recurring theme in art. In architecture, for example, it might be a repeated shape. In music, it might be a series of pitches or a distinct rhythm that comes and goes. English adopted the French version of the word in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Anglicized “motif” has become steadily more popular .
One might wonder why English borrowed a term when it already had a serviceable cognate, “motive,” that has been part of the language since Chaucer. My guess would be that by the eighteenth century the word “motive” had taken a turn in English that rendered it unsuitable as a tag for the Enlightenment concept. From the beginning of its career in English, “motive” contained both a subjective and an objective component. A motive can be, for example, the external reason that prompts an action. It is used this way in discussions of criminality: the triplet of means, motive, and opportunity must be established, we say, to prove guilt. But a motive can also be an inner impulse (as in “the wrong motives”). By the time English got to the point where it wanted to encapsulate the Enlightenment notion of motif, Romantic individualism had tipped “motive” so far toward the subjective pole that it was no longer a good translation for the more objective European concept. Or so I speculate. There could also be a simpler reason for the Gallic borrow: the preference of aesthetic types for snobbish French words.
At any rate, we adopted “motif” from the French, then, in the 1880s, we borrowed the German “Leitmotiv”, which means “leading motif.” Just to confuse the matter, we inserted the spelling of our earlier French borrowing of “motif” into the German word, giving us “leitmotif,” which, dictionaries now tell us, is the correct English spelling. The meaning of “leitmotif” does not differ much from that of “motif.”
Feeding a mash of “leitmotif” web references to the Forum chicken gives us a clutch of eggcorns. At the simplest level, speakers tend to replace “motif” with “motive.” shows the tendency is widespread. It’s not a very good eggcorn, but “leitmotive” perhaps shifts the meaning toward the subjectivity of the artist using the technique.
A more interesting egg is the one that substitutes an English word for the obscure German “Leit,” giving us “lightmotif/light motif:”
: “There is a lightmotif in the series that power changes people.”
: “If the end of the nineties and of the Twentieth Century had a lightmotif, it was anything with an oblique, post-modern sound”
: “port-o-potties were a light motif ”
In this reworking, the imagery does undergo a significant change, with the semantics of “light,” either in the sense of light=not heavy or light=beam, shaping the semantics of the new term.
The third egg is a blend of the first two:
: “During the part of the sea you hear different beats in the form of a lightmotive where other terms are set upon it.”
: “it has nice elements in it and uses ‘From here to Eternity’ as a lightmotive when they meet at the end,”
: “ A light motive is painted or engraved on the rear glass surface to resemble the wool of the sheep.”
Last edited by kem (2013-10-08 22:14:25)
Wonderful exposition, Kem, really a treat.
: “port-o-potties were a light motif ”
That I had to check out.
My contribution is questionable and rare. Too bad – makes sense to me.
Dang, “likemotif” would be a good one, if we could find it.
Here’s another possible hit:
: “ An exquisite solid brass level with applied fleur de lis likemotifs on the top and sides”
The problem with documenting “likemotif” is that the intentions behind the sentences are not clear. It could be the speakers/writers mean “bird-like motif” and “plant-like motif” and “fleur de lis-like motif.”