The noun highlight is defined by dictionary.com as “an important, conspicuous, memorable, or enjoyable … part” of something. It is commonly used in its plural form to describe the shortened broadcast of a sports event in which key parts of a match are replayed, but highlight is also regularly used in day-to-day conversation to describe the best part of a wider event or time frame, e.g. “The highlight of my day was receiving a pay rise from my boss.” Highlight is obviously a compound word consisting of high and light, but where did it originate?
The Online Etymology Dictionary dates highlight back to the 1650s. Originally it was used in the art sector to describe the brightest part of the painting, which is also the most important. When you look at a picture, which part do you notice first? Is it the monk’s dark robes, or the bright blue eyes of the subject? Most people are instinctively drawn to the brightest part, where the amount of light reflected is at its highest, i.e. the highlight.
Using the British National Corpus, I ran a random search for the singular noun highlight. My sample of 100 lines shows that on 70% of occasions, the word is used to describe the best or most important part of a particular time period, e.g. “The highlight of my career was becoming CEO of Google.” In this example, career is the wider time frame, and becoming CEO of Google is the best (or most important) part of that time. My search also suggests that 17% of the time, highlight is used to describe the best part of a place or thing (i.e. non-temporal), e.g. “The Mona Lisa is a highlight of the Louvre.” On 7% of occasions, highlight was found to retain its original meaning, the brightest part of a work of art.
I looked at another 100-word sample, this time using the plural highlights. This shows that 38% of the time, highlights has a temporal meaning, whereas 24% of the time it is used to describe the shortened version of a sports or news event, e.g. “The highlights of the game are on after the break.” On 12% of occasions, it refers to colour, with (hair) highlights becoming an increasingly popular fashion trend.
Although the word highlight still retains its original meaning, these days you are more likely to encounter it as meaning the best part of a wider whole. By remembering where the word comes from – the brightest part of a picture – it helps us remember the most common meanings of the word today.