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The meaning and origin of the expression: On the side of the angels

On the side of the angels

What's the meaning of the phrase 'On the side of the angels'?

(Originally) Supporting the theory of the divine creation.

(More commonly) Acting in accordance with principles regarded as morally virtuous.

What's the origin of the phrase 'On the side of the angels'?

'On the side of the angels' is one of the linguistic rarities in that is believed to have an unambiguous origin. At the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 25th November 1864 Benjamin Disraeli, later to become the UK Prime Minister, delivered a speech entitled Church Policy, a transcript of which which was put into print the same year. The speech was rather long and included Disraeli's views on Darwin's Theory of Evolution laid out in the recently published On the Origin of Species:

What is the question now placed before society with a glib assurance the most astounding? The question is this - Is man an ape or an angel? (loud laughter) My lord, I am on the side of the angels (laughter and cheering).

On the q.t.The meeting was chaired by the Bishop of Oxford and the audience was largely made up of clerics - hence the loud cheers indicated in the citation. Disraeli stirred up considerable debate by his comments and a rather satirical cartoon of him portrayed as an angel was published soon after the debate.

So, the meaning of 'on the side of the angels', as indicated by Disraeli, was 'supporting the view that man was divinely created and refuting Darwinism'. This meaning is now almost forgotten and the expression is now used colloquially to mean 'with the good guys'.

The currently commonplace meaning emerged in the late 19th century. Here's an example from The Musical Times, March 1894:

Even when his [Von Bülow's] humour was most outrageous it was nine times out of ten on the side of the angels.

Despite the widespread view that the phrase was coined by Disraeli it is entirely possible that he was using an existing phrase in his speech for comic effect - it certainly prompted laughter in his audience. Of course, a citation showing the current meaning that dates from before November 1864 would be the clincher, and we don't have that.

So, Disraeli being the coiner of the phrase is the best we have and, going back to that meaning of the term, I would just like to put on record that "I am on the side of the apes".

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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