In The Limelight, Origin?

There is a suggestion at a PBS website that “living in the limelight” refers to using limes in the making of spot lights. But, no clarification is provided. Does anyone know more about the origin of this term?

  • Jinx

Yes, it’s from the (19th century British) theatre world when lime was used for spot lights as it is luminescent at high temps.

Note that it is not limes, i.e. the fruit, but lime, i.e. calcium oxide, that luminesces to give you the limelight.

That’s lime the mineral (calcium carbonate), not limes the citrus fruit.

Argh, double post, swansont beat me to it!

WHAT!!? You mean lime water is not NOT made from citrus fruits! <runs for acidic solution>

James Burke explained this in his TV series (and in the associated book and audiotape). I think it was the original Connections, but it might have been The Day the Universe Changed

A very hot flame from the appropriate lamp is played upon a ball of calcium oxide (lime), which glows very white. I think they used alcohol flames at first, but I could be wrong. In any event, the result was a very bright white light. When you combined this with a paraboklic reflector, you got a very directional light you could use for stage lighting. Burke says it was alsio used for scientific purposes, such as determining the height of the mountain Ben Nevis. The bright white light made the peak visible, even in rotten weather.

Limelight was later replaced by newer, brighter, and safer sources.

Aw, man, I thought Rush invented “Limelight.”

The “Green Room” was a room backstage with green walls where the actors could soothe their fried eyeballs after being on stage in the actinic light of lime.

Uh … no.

The term “green room” dates back to the 17th century, well before the use of limelight.,3,1,97/GREENROOM.html


A rather scholarly article, to be sure, but in the end, all George B. Bryan says is that everyone else’s explanations of Green Rooms are wrong, yet he can provide no conclusive explanation of anything else.

His references to the 16th century theaters in England mention actors’ changing and waiting rooms but “Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing if tiring rooms were hung or carpeted with green cloth at this early date.”

Then he mentions 17th century theaters hung with green curtains… nearly everywhere except backstage… specifically, in the house and on the stage.

Finally; “Why were they green? No one yet knows for certain, but theatre artists undoubtedly will continue to honor the tradition of the green room despite their general ignorance of its history.”

The site mentions that the full text of the article is for sale as an e-book… maybe the full article is more convincing… the argument falls a bit short in the abridged version.

Limelight was invented in the 1820’s.

The room backstage where actors change had been called the “greenroom” for at least 100 years before limelight was invented.

So, while the actual origins of the term “greenroom” may be obscure, it certainly wasn’t connected in any way with limelight … .