Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for June, 2009

Where does the term limelight come from?

I have been working on a stage play recently and ran across the term “limelight” several times.  We all know that to be in the limelight, one has been seeking the spotlight of the stage or public attention.  But then it occurred to me, why “limelight”?  Why not lemonlight?  Better yet, if you are a Sprite fan why not lymon light?

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

It turns out that limelight refers to the chemical reaction created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of calcium oxide, commonly referred to as lime. 

According to The Hydrogen Age, a book by Geoffrey Holland and James J. Provenzano, the limelight effect was developed in 1826 by English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney (how’s that for a name!) and developed into a working light by Thomas Drummond. 

“The result was a brilliant bright incandescence that Drumond soon adapted for use in lighthouses because it remained visible fifty or more miles distant.  Within a few decades limelight was also lighting stage performers in theaters and music halls across Europe and America.”

According to the Wikipedia entry on limelight,

“Limelight was first used in the Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1837 and enjoyed widespread use in theatres around the world in the 1860s and 1870s.  Limelights were employed to highlight solo performers in the same manner as modern followspots. To this day, theatre followspots are often referred to as limes.  Limelight was replaced by electric arc light in the late 19th century.”

Let it be said then, that there are still limes in the theater, but no lime left in the limelight.

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Which U.S. state has the longest name?

I am almost embarrassed to say that until recently, I did not know the answer to this question.  But while researching the last post on commonwealth vs. state, I stumbled upon this interesting fact.  The real name of the state known popularly as “Rhode Island” is actually officially known as “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”.

So not only is Rhode Island technically not an island, but Rhode Island is technically not the official state name.  Naturally, that left me wondering: how did the smallest state in the union get the longest name?

As the map clearly shows, Rhode Island is not actually an island

According to the book, State Names, Seals, Flags, and Symbols  by Barbara Smith Shearer:

When Dutch explorer Adrian Block came upon an island with red clay shores, he named it in his native tongue “Roodt Eylandt,” meaning “red island.” Under English rule, the name was anglicized in the then current spelling.

Rhode Island’s status as the smallest state lends it the nicknames Little Rhody and the Smallest State. Roger Williams, who founded Providence Plantation in 1636, is honored by the sobriquet the Land of Roger Williams.  Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is also known as the Plantation State.

There you have the abbreviated version of the facts behind the naming of Rhode Island.  If you, like me,  didn’t know this information before, you can now breath a little easier.