Angel comes from the Greek angelos, meaning messenger. The Greek word was used in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures written sometime between the third and first centuries B.C.E., to translate the Hebrew mal’ak. A mal’ak-yehowah is a messenger of Jehovah.
From Greek, the word was borrowed into Latin, becoming angelus, and from Latin into the Germanic languages. Exactly when English picked up the word is uncertain, but it clearly pre-dates the Norman Conquest. The earliest known appearance in English writing is from c.950 in the Lindisfarne Gospels, in Matthew 22:30:
sint suelce englas godes in heofnum
(are like god’s angels in heaven)
There is a famous story that appears in Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written c.731 in Latin, about Gregory (c.540-604), who would later become Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). Gregory encountered some English slaves in a market place:
“What is the name of this race?” [said Gregory] “They are called Angles,” he was told. “That is appropriate,” he said, “for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should become joint-heirs with the angels in heaven.
The story doesn’t tell us anything about the origin of the word angel, but it is an interesting example of medieval wordplay.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton