What Does It Mean To Be In The Limelight?

Most dictionaries offer two definitions of being in the limelight: on stage under the spotlight, or to be in a position of public scrutiny. But from where does this phrase originate?

Limelight is the brilliant white illumination resulting from the heating of a cylinder of quicklime by an oxyhydrogen flame. The effect was discovered by Goldsworthy Gurney in the 1820s, but the process was refined in 1825 by Thomas Drummond who believed it to be useful for surveying.


The first recorded use of limelight for a public performance was in 1836 on the Herne Bay Pier in Kent, where it was used for a juggling act. However, a year later it debuted indoors to spotlight performers at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and was soon adopted by theatres worldwide.

Meanwhile, the figurative use of being in the limelight, meaning to be at the centre of attention, entered into common parlance at around the turn of the 20th century, but by then its practical use in theatres had already begun to be phased out by electric arc lighting.