Limelight or spotlight? Use the right phrase.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic enjoys the limelight

The English language is full of tricks and words of similar meaning that are confusing to second language speakers.

One of these is limelight and spotlight. While some believe that to be in the limelight and under the spotlight are much the same, I think they are quite different.

Although they both originate from stage lighting, where an incandescent quicklime was used to light the stage, a direct lamp was used to spotlight an actor or scene as they move around the stage to ensure they were in focus all the time.

Confused usage

Over time, many writers use them interchangeably – this is not correct.

While being in the limelight has usually positive connotations, being under the spotlight commonly has negative implications.

For example, you could say, “Donald Trump is under the spotlight because of the impeachment charges against him.

Also, you could say, “The coronavirus is under the spotlight.” This is the correct usage as it has the attention of the world and is on just about every news broadcast across the globe. You would not say that the corona virus is in the limelight.

Like the limelight

You want to use limelight for something favourable or pleasing. For example, you could say, Novak Djokovic enjoyed the limelight during the Australian Open, walking away with the trophy for the eighth time. He waved at his fans, threw his merchandise into the audience and generally lapped up the applause.

However, if he had put a towel over his face and run off the court, you would simply say, “Djokovic does not like the limelight – albeit it positive attention.

If Djokovic was the subject of a scandal such as doping, he would be under the spotlight i.e. he would be in the news for all the wrong reasons.

An easy way to remember is that limelight is something you may desire, but you would not want to be under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

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