a recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.
a distinctive and recurring form, shape, figure, etc., in a design, as in a painting or on wallpaper.
a dominant idea or feature: the profit motif of free enterprise.

1840–50; < French; see motive Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
motif (məʊˈtiːf)
1.  a distinctive idea, esp a theme elaborated on in a piece of music, literature, etc
2.  Also: motive a recurring form or shape in a design or pattern
3.  a single added piece of decoration, such as a symbol or name on a jumper, sweatshirt, etc
[C19: from French. See motive]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Word Origin & History

1848, from Fr. motif "dominant idea, theme" (see motive).
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Cultural Dictionary
motif [(moh-teef)]

In literature, art, or music, a recurring set of words, shapes, colors, or notes. In the poem “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe, for example, the word nevermore is a motif appearing at the end of each stanza. Likewise, the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven are a motif that is developed and reshaped throughout the work.

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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Computing Dictionary

Motif definition

The standard graphical user interface and window manager from OSF, running on the X Window System.

The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, © Denis Howe 2010
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Example sentences
Paintings generally utilize a theme and variation compositional motif.
Among nature motifs, feathers have a more decorative feel than coral or
That motif is quite simply an image of a woman swooning in her partner's arms.
This motif resurrects itself several times, but it's not the main theme.
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