• leitmotif •
lait-mow-tif • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A recurring line or melody in a piece of music, usually associated with a specific character, situation, or element. 2. A recurring idea in a written document or spoken piece, such as a novel, short story, or speech.
Notes: This is the long form of motif. The shorter version's meaning is broader; it includes a repeated figure in an architectural design or the pattern in a molecule. Leitmotif is generally restricted to literature and music.
In Play: Since it would be difficult to exemplify a musical leitmotif, I will give an example of one in literature: "The inability of people to communicate is a leitmotif that flows through all the plays and short stories of Anton Chekhov." A prime location of leitmotifs is political speeches: "The leitmotif of every Democrat is 'restoring the middle class' and every Republican, 'cutting taxes'."
Word History: This term originates in the days of Mozart, but is most closely associated with the music of Wagner. Leitmotiv, literally "lead theme", was borrowed from German, where it is a compound comprising the root of leiten "to lead" + Motiv "motive, theme". Leiten obviously came from the same source as English lead, which we can trace back only as far as Proto-Germanic laidjan, which showed up in Old Norse liða "to go" and Old German ga-lidan "to travel". Motiv was borrowed from the feminine of Old French motif, motive. French inherited its word from Latin motivus "moving" from movere "to move", something that moves us. The V in this word became B in the Latin derivation for "mobile", mobilis. English borrowed this word for its mobile, and the clipping of this word, mob. (Eric Berntson's excellent recommendations of Good Words like today's are without a consistent leifmotif.)
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