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What Does It Mean to Be ‘In the Limelight’?

Being in the limelight has nothing to do with limes! Instead, it has to do with minerals, lighthouses, and the early days of theatre.

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #643
A theater light (no longer a limelight)

Have you ever wondered what it means to be “in the limelight?”  

Let me tell you right now that it has nothing to do with limes.

Instead, it has to do with minerals, lighthouses, and the early days of theater.

For starters, “to be in the limelight” is an expression that means to be under intense public scrutiny—to have all eyes on you. This could be in the moment; for example, if you were an actor on stage in a critical scene. Or it could be over a period of time; if you were a celebrity caught in a scandal, for example. 

Limelight’s Invention, and Its Use in Surveying

This expression dates back to 1816. A young Scottish engineer named Thomas Drummond had been hired by Britain’s Ordnance Survey to create detailed maps of Scotland. But he struggled to get accurate readings in the murky Scottish weather. 

To solve this problem, he turned to English inventor Sir Goldsworthy Gurney. (What a name!) Gurney had developed a blowpipe that burned hydrogen and oxygen, which created an extremely hot flame. Gurney found that when he used the flame to heat calcium oxide—also known as “quicklime”—it produced an intense white light. 

This light was so spectacular, and so much brighter than other lights from that time, that viewers were stunned. Here’s what one witness said: “… when the gas began to play, the lime being brought now to its full ignition … a glare shone forth, overpowering … A shout of triumph and of admiration burst from all present.”

Limelight made it easier for surveyors to measure distances.

Drummond realized that if he placed a limelight on a reference point in the landscape, it could be seen from miles away—as many as 50 miles away. This would make the work of surveyors measuring distances immensely easier.

A New Light for Lighthouses?

Drummond’s light was used throughout the surveying of Scotland, and in the subsequent surveying of Ireland, and starting in 1829, it was put into trial for use in lighthouses. The light it created, said one witness, was “not only more vivid and conspicuous [than other types of light], but was peculiarly remarkable from its exquisite whiteness. Indeed, there seems no great presumption in comparing its splendour to that of the sun….”

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Unfortunately, the trials didn’t pan out. Limelight’s brilliant light could only be achieved with “much labor … and expensive apparatus.” Basically, even though limelight was super bright, it was too hard to keep in operation for an extended period of time.

Limelight’s Use in Theater

Nonetheless, by 1837, limelight had been adopted in theaters, and it was in wide use there by 1860. Stagehands used these brilliant lights to illuminate their stages and create the effect of sunlight or moonlight. They also found a way to direct the light onto one single person—putting them “in the limelight.” 

Using limelight in the theater meant hard work.

They had to work hard to do it—constantly maintaining tanks of oxygen and hydrogen, and carefully feeding lime into a white-hot flame—but they did it. And they continued to do it until the advent of incandescent light rendered limelight obsolete. By the end of the 19th century, limelight had exited theaters, stage left.

Metaphoric Meaning of 'Limelight'

Over time, the literal sense of being in the limelight took on a metaphoric meaning. It now describes someone receiving the glare of public attention. A recent example might be a certain actress named Meghan Markle—better known now as the Duchess of Sussex. If any public figure has been in the limelight in 2018, it’s surely Ms. Markle, whose every action, hairstyle, and sartorial choice have been dissected by the press.

No one ever said that being in the limelight was easy.

To be 'in the limelight' means to be at the center of public attention.

That’s your tidbit for today. To be “in the limelight” means to be at the center of public attention, and it originally did come from the idea of being in a bright light made from a chemical known as “quicklime.” 

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

Ammer, Christine. In the limelight. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Bloy, Dr. Marjorie. Thomas Drummond. A Web of English History, (accessed August 10, 2018).

Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, Limelight (subscription required, accessed August 6, 2018).

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Limelight (subscription required, accessed August 6, 2018).

United States Lighthouse Society. Reflectors by Thomas Tag, Lime Light (accessed August 14, 2018).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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