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When I visited Sweden, I noticed the Swedish cognate sken used to mean the simple outward appearance of something, (see http://tyda.se/forum?id=194961,) and this did not seem at all surprising to me, because I was already familiar with the same use of the word "sheen" in (my native tongue) English. Here is a made-up example:

In the 1990s, the company acquired a sheen of legitimacy while retaining its former connections to certain organized crime networks.

However, this meaning of the word does not appear in any dictionary that I know of. Is this an accepted meaning of the noun "sheen" as I always thought it was?

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I would use "veneer" in that context. – JAM Nov 3 '12 at 22:09
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I checked a handful of dictionaries. Like you, I couldn't find a more figurative meaning for sheen; the definitions were all more focused on a literal shine on the surface of something.

That said, we use many synonymous words – such as shine, glow, and luster – figuratively. When we say things like:

Her face shone on her wedding day.

Robert was glowing when he brought home his report card.

The university has regained some of its luster from yesteryear.

we don't expect that the bride's face would have literally lit up a room, or that Robert was glowing green, as if he had just walked past a radiation leak, or that the campus banisters had been recently polished with brass cleaner.

Such figurative uses of the word sheen don't seem completely rare. Among Wordnik's usage examples, I found:

My favourite Sci-Fi shows are all American, although maybe there's a certain sheen added by cultural distance. (from a comment on a blog)

It finds [Courtney] Love's songs buffed to a chunky rock sheen in search of a commercial audience, just in time for some putative grunge revival. (from a record review)

The Limits of Control is all surface and no substance. Talented cinematographer Christopher Doyle lends a glossy sheen to the proceedings, but it all adds up to little more than an in-joke for the artsy clique. (from an online film review)

So, to answer your question, I'd aver that your example is fine. Moreover, as I mentioned in my comment, there are hundreds of instances of that particular phrase in published works already, as well as others, such as sheen of honesty and sheen of virtue.

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I take it you didn’t check the OED. OED sense 1b is labelled “transf. and fig.” – tchrist Nov 4 '12 at 0:26
@tchrist: You're correct, I hadn't extended my search that far. But I'm glad you did, and shared your findings. Thanks. – J.R. Nov 4 '12 at 0:43

As @JAM stated, you would normally expect to use the word 'veneer' but 'sheen' is used as well. You will be understood.

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I don't doubt that one would be understood but I disagree with the claim that sheen is used: books.google.com/ngrams/… – MετάEd Nov 3 '12 at 22:33
It Is though-certainly in the UK. Not as common as veneer but it is used. – Rory Alsop Nov 3 '12 at 22:35
To the contrary: the British-only ngram actually has -0- examples of sheen. It seems to be America only. books.google.com/ngrams/… – MετάEd Nov 3 '12 at 22:53
@MετάEd not necessarily "sheen of legitimacy" -- could be "sheen of righteousness" -- or anything similar that is or would be seen in an unduly positive light. – justin-- Nov 3 '12 at 23:42
@MετάEd: I don't think the O.P. was inquiring about "sheen of legitmacy" per se – as was said, that's a "made-up example." It may have just as well said "sheen of villiany" or "sheen of honesty" or "sheen of disrepute". At any rate, the expression can be found in published works. – J.R. Nov 4 '12 at 0:17

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