Limelight vs spotlight

limelight can be either a bright light used in theater that uses lime and a lens, the light created by that instrument, or it can also be figurative when media or the general public is focused on a person to that he or she is the center of attention.

The noun can be plural, but is rarely used that way. The most common phrase is in the limelight for the definition of being in the public’s eye.

spotlight can be a light in theater that is circular and follows an actor or performer around the stage so he or she is always in the light and can be seen by the audience. This can also be figurative as a person or issue that is always in the forefront of people’s minds or constantly under consideration.

Spotlight can also be a verb to mean lit up by a spotlight or constantly emphasized.


Cara Delevingne stole the limelight at the first photocall for new film Paper Towns, arriving in a checked cropped top and matching shorts. [London Evening Standard]

Dylan’s father, Jamie, filmed his son’s moment in the limelight and can be heard whooping and cheering along in the clip. [The Telegraph]

China’s economic boom has propelled the nation into the global spotlight. [The New York Times]

Intel’s acquisition of custom chipmaker Altera spotlights the flexibility and capability enterprises will need to address future computing workloads, especially those created by Internet of Things (IoT) devices, according to one industry veteran. [Forbes]

1 thought on “Limelight vs spotlight”

  1. Not an etymologically important note, perhaps … but “limelight” refers to an early technological lamp used in theatre and public stages in the era before municipality delivered electricity.

    The “problem” was how to create a bright light, in the era of fire.

    See, it is easy to create super-bright lights with electricity. One can heat tungsten or platinum wire to ridiculously hot temperatures where they glow abundantly. We call these “incandescent” lamps, and have been using them since Edison commercialized the process. One can create even more brightness with an electric-arc, which is a plasma that bridges a gap between metal or carbon electrodes. We’re all familiar with the sky-pointing spot-lights (arc based), but the technology used to be employed for movie theatre projectors. In the Era of Stage, arc-lights were also used as the spot-lights, since the color of the light is so richly blue.

    But limelight was a kind of chance discovery. Before electricity (as in my grandmother’s house), there was gas. Before ubiquitous natural gas, there was producer gas … an incredibly nasty concoction roasted from gas-coal, a kind of coal that was brown and not terribly useful for heating. But abundant. Producer gas could be burned in small jets around a room for a pleasant if somewhat flickering gaslight.

    Gaslight although nice enough to read by, wasn’t strong enough for the stage. Not really. (You might see careful theatric reenactments that have scores or hundreds of little scallop-shell open gas-flame lamps lining the front of the stage. These were the original ‘floodlights’.) Someone discovered though that if a small lump of carefully chosen lime was heated with a jet of burning gas, it would anomalously glow brightly, far above what a similarly heated chunk of stone, brick, masonry or metal would glow. And the glow was a pleasant greenish-blue color, also uncharacteristic of gas flames.

    The brightness and compactness of this light source lead almost immediately to its adoption in theatre and stage, since with the expedient of a good fireproof enclosure and some large glass lenses, one could collimate the limelight into a narrow spotlight beam.

    And there you have it. Both words, combined.



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