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The meaning and origin of the expression: On with the motley

On with the motley

What's the meaning of the phrase 'On with the motley'?

Prepare for a stage performance. Latterly also used more widely just to mean let's begin or let's continue.

What's the origin of the phrase 'On with the motley'?

Motley, and its variants motlé and motlegh, are Anglo-Norman words meaning variegated. Motley was also the name of a type of cloth made from two or more colours and later clothing made from such cloth. There are several citings of motley in the late 14th century, including this from the Prologue of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales:

"A marchant was there ... In motlee, and hye on hors he sat."

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'On with the motley'The best-known wearers of motley were jesters of harlequins and the patchwork costume became their standard style of stage dress, as in this painting by Frans Hals, circa 1620. To announce 'on with the motley' was to declare one's intention to get into one's stage costume.

Shakespeare referred to motley as a form of dress several times in As You Like It, 1600.

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
A worthy fool! Motley's the only wear.

He also calls the fool motley-minded, by which he meant inconsistent and erratic - but he doesn't use the phrase on with the motley.

The first recorded use of 'on with the motley' is in Pagliacci, an opera by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, 1892. The text was translated into English in 1893 by F. E. Weatherly:

Thou art not a man, thou’rt but a jester!
On with the motley, and the paint, and the powder!
The people pay thee, and want their laugh, you know!
If Harlequin thy Columbine has stolen, laugh Punchinello!
The world will cry, "Bravo!"

See also: Motley crew.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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