Why do we say ‘in the limelight’?

Like so many phrases and traditions, ‘in the limelight’ – describing someone who is the centre of attention – was born in the theatre.

Why do we say ‘in the limelight’? © Getty Images

As limelight gave out a brilliant white light that could be moved and focused, it perfectly fitted as the source of what would be the first spotlight.


It had been invented in the early 1800s by heating calcium oxide with a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen, and proved helpful to Scottish civil engineer Thomas Drummond during his survey of Ireland’s mountain peaks. He could reportedly see the light from 68 miles away.

From its first use in the theatre, sometime in the 1830s, the benefits of limelight over the standard gas lamps were instantly clear.


Not only did it simulate natural light effectively and draw focus to the lead actor, but it was much less of a fire risk, which was a massive boon in a room filled with an audience.

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of History Revealed.