Perhaps this would be easiest to start at the beginning, circa 950 AD. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explains that (endl), (for the non-linguaphiles, that’s angel) was adopted from Latin, angelus, or, “the messenger,” but it also had a long run in quite the variety of languages. In the Old English, ngel:angil (engel), in Old Norse, engill, and the Gothic, aggilus for angilus. Angel was even notated in Greek and Hebrew, and that’s just the tip of the origins.
The pronunciation has been fairly simple, with only one major change. The Old English form, engel, with the hard “g,” remained the pronunciation until the late 1200’s. Then, the Old French and Latin soft “g” influenced the word, including the “a” at the beginning, which took hold, reflecting the modern spelling and pronunciation of angel as the word speakers know today.
The Hebrew version, mal'k, in full mal'k-yhwh, became the standard for the definition, translated as the “messenger of Jehovah,” or in later versions, as the “messenger of God.” This seemed the preferable rendition and has been used as the definition and primary usage for all of the other languages. In fact, angel was (and has been) known to the world of language in the simplest of its forms with the primary usage reflecting “the messenger.”
However, “the messenger” isn’t the only usage of the divine little word. The OED actually has quite an inventory of quotations, and a hefty list of ten definitions to define what seems a simple word.
Since it’s fun, the very first quotation is marked as originating in 950 AD: “c950 Lindisf. Gosp. Matt. xxii. 30 Sint suelce englas godes in heofnum [c1000 Ags. G., Godes englas].” It’s clearly Old English, but it looks to use englas as angels, and heofnum as heaven. The meaning, then, is still the same. The OED explains that the angel is “a ministering spirit or divine messenger; one of an order of spiritual beings superior to man in power and intelligence, who, according to the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other theologies, are the attendants and messengers of the Deity.” And, as the word expanded, angel came to reflect “one of the fallen or rebellious spirits, said to have been formerly angels of God.” Simple enough. Angels came down from heaven and are “superior to man” in that they are the “messengers of God.”
In 1382, angel came to reflect more than just God’s messenger, as it also began to mean “a guardian or attendant spirit,” in the literal sense. And, for the first time in the history of the word, angel took on the purely rhetorical meaning, “without implying any belief in reality, as ‘her good angel,’ ‘my evil angel triumphed,’ ‘angel of innocence, [and] repentance.’ ”
Moreover, 1382 also brought in the use of angel as “any messenger of God, as a prophet, or preacher.” Thus, angel has moved from the literal creature altogether as has come to reflect a comparison of man to the divine being, as a preacher has often been thought to have a divine connection to God. The preacher is not a “messenger of God” in the old sense, but he is, literally, God’s (less ethereal) messenger to the people.
Angel took on an altogether different meaning as of 1488, representing an “Old English gold coin…being originally a new issue of the Angel-Noble, having as its device the archangel Michael standing upon, and piercing the dragon.” The angel, then, is actually Michael battling on the back of the coin, but the coin itself was referred to as an angel, which was slang for the name of the coin: the angel-noble.
Shakespeare came into the game around 1592, (clever as always) and introduced the alternate definition of the word as people know it today, as, “a lovely, bright, innocent, or gracious being,” which means that the person used for comparison, “resembles an angel either in attributes or actions.” And this may throw some for a loop, but angel was also defined in this year as “a minister of loving offices.” Clearly, comparing someone to an angel still exists as a viable definition; however, “a minister of loving offices” seems a bit strange. Perhaps the madam of a brothel? Doubtful.
By 1888, angel was being used as a definition for a certain food, angels on horseback. The quote actually says it best: “Angels on Horseback, nowthose delicious little morsels of oysters rolled in bacon, and served on crisp toast.” Sounds tasty. Moreover, this is the first instance recorded in the OED that angel was used in combination with another word to reflect an entirely different meaning. By 1891, angel took on a bit more slang, becoming known as “a financial backer of an enterprise, especially one who supports a theatrical production.” Now that this definition has been brought up, there is a group of venture capitalists called Venture Angels. Mainly, if a grant request is turned down, people are prompted to find a willing Venture Angel, a rich philanthropist with similar ideals who is willing to fund the project. Each state even holds a detailed and updated list of such Venture Angels. With that said, angel as a rich philanthropist relates (almost) to the preachers as messengers of God. This is a stretch, but when things go someone’s way (like finding grant money from a Venture Angel), they say “what a Godsend.” Messengers of God, indeed.
Just to get it all out there, it’s important to mention that angel also has a few very strange definitions. In 1943, angel was referred to in slang as “a height of 1,000 feet.” Another oddity came in 1947, with angel referring to “an ‘unexplained’ mark on a radar screen.” Though these two definitions seem entirely inexplicable, they could have something to do with the fact that angels, the creatures, were known to fly down from the heavens. Maybe people were being clever (and oh so metaphorical) when they proclaimed the “unidentified angel” in the sky. Or maybe, since the 1940’s were abuzz with alien talk and weird things hovering in the clouds, it’s possible that nothing more inventive came about as to actually putting words to such things.
Now, angel is, of course, found in thousands of quotations over the ages, and the OED includes more than enough for every definition to get the general idea. Moreover, several additions to the dictionary have also been entered, marking the first transitional definitions for angel; when attached to other words like the angels on horseback. In 1993, the OED added angel-shark as “any shark of the family Squatinidae, characterized by wing-like pectoral fins,” and in 1997, angel’s trumpet came to be defined as, “any of various plants of either the South American genus Brugmansia…both of the family Solanaceae and characterized by large trumpet-shaped flowers; also, the flower(s) of any of these plants.”
It seems that angel hasn’t changed nearly as much as could be expected, since it tended to keep with the idea of celestial beings come down from heaven, the divine messengers of God. The largest leap is calling people with money, or even priests, angels, though it makes sense in a linear fashion as to how they took on the new definitions. The coin, the angel-noble, can perhaps be connected to “financial backers” because those financial “angels” have in their possession many coins and are thought of as divine for solving problems with those coins. And, though the preachers themselves don’t actually have wings, it makes a fine comparison to call them angels as they do have a connection to God, and might even call themselves messengers of God.
Overall, angel has been around for more than a thousand years, and has managed to hold on to its original meaning since its very inception. Even the new meanings have connections to the old, enough so that they can be deducted, at least. Angel, then, can be used to define a divine messenger of God, or it can be used as a comparison to any number of things, though all definitions have the same message in common: ethereal-like and helpful.