The botanical metaphor “evergreen” is now used for whatever exhibits an enduring freshness, success, or popularity. The term originally appeared in the 17th century:

1640s in reference to trees and shrubs, from ever + green (adj.). From 1660s as an adjective;

but only more than two centuries later it started to be used metaphorically

figurative sense from 1871. (Etymonline)

Checking the usage of evergreen with Ngram for the second half of the 19th century, it appears there are no usage instances in the figurative sense.

So, what are the earliest usage of evergreen used figuratively? What was the metaphor initially used for? a piece of classic music, a theatrical piece, a book, or what?

  • it appears info is available ... behind paywalls
    – lbf
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 14:28

1 Answer 1


My first thought was that this metaphorical noun usage is strongly associated with 50s American music radio, when not everyone wanted to listen to the new "Rock and Roll" music. Many preferred well-known more traditional songs/ballads which would then be called evergreens (what we'd more likely call oldies today).

So I was quite surprised to find how old this usage is. Here's the full OED (behind a paywall, I'm afraid)...

evergreen Definition 2 (figurative)
A person or thing that endures from one season to the next; a person or thing of enduring freshness, success, or popularity.
First citation:
1712 E. Budgell Spectator No. 395. I do not design this Speculation for the Evergreens of the Sex.

I can't say exactly when the term was specifically used to refer to songs which were popular with the previous generation, but still appeal to new younger listeners, but I suppose it's quite possible my first thought was in fact correct in that respect, and that it's essentially a post-war usage.

  • 1
    The full OED is freely available in the US and the UK usually through a local library ID card.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 14:37
  • Interesting, so it looks like the figurative sense well predates the year (1871) suggested by Etymonline.
    – user 66974
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 15:06
  • 1
    @Mitch No it's not. Not even in major universities or library systems. There is no OED subscription in the North Carolina or Tennesee library systems that I have found, and I have looked pretty hard. Nor is there a CGEL either. However, I have twice been informed that there exists a 20's era paper OED in the basement of a local library, hidden among the book returns, ensconced in a little niche and doted on by elderly librarians like a forgotten idol. But I haven't tried to cash in my good standing with them and see for my self.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 20:25
  • My alma mater has a subscription, but I can't access remotely. "Unfortunately our licenses with the vendors who provide our databases do not allow us to offer remote access to our resources unless they are an active student, staff, or faculty members. The only workarounds require accessing them while physically at the library".
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 20:28

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