On With The Motley

Previous Page

On With The Motley : Phrases


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



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 Canterbury Tales:

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

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.

Shakespeare referred to motley as a form of dress several times in As You Like It, 1599.


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!"

The term motley crew has been used since the 18th century to mean a ragbag of scurrilous ne'er-do-wells. What better name for a heavy rock band? Mötley Crüe formed in 1981 and adopted the name. In the fashion of the time, like contemparies Siouxsie & the Banshees and Enuff Z'nuff, they indulged in a deliberate misspelling. That fashion has passed now, but it's unlikely that their bass player Nikki Sixx will revert to his given name of Frank Carlton Serafino Feranna, Jr.

Phrases Index

From With The Motley to HOME PAGE