c. 1600, "group of students," in U.S. especially "number of pupils in a school or college of the same grade," from French classe (14c.), from Latin classis "a class, a division; army, fleet," especially "any one of the six orders into which Servius Tullius divided the Roman people for the purpose of taxation;" traditionally originally "the people of Rome under arms" (a sense attested in English from 1650s), and thus akin to calare "to call (to arms)," from PIE root *kele- (2) "to shout." In early use in English also in Latin form classis.
Meaning "an order or rank of persons, a number of persons having certain characteristics in common" is from 1660s. School and university sense of "course, lecture" (1650s) is from the notion of a form or lecture reserved to scholars who had attained a certain level. Natural history sense "group of related plants or animals" is from 1753. Meaning "high quality" is from 1874. Meaning "a division of society according to status" (with upper, lower, etc.) is from 1763. Class-consciousness (1903) is from German Klassenbewusst.
The fault, the evil, in a class society is when privilege exists without responsibility and duty. The evil of the classless society is that it tends to equalize the responsibility, to atomize it into responsibility of the whole population—and therefore everyone becomes equally irresponsible. [T.S. Eliot, BBC interview with Leslie Paul, 1958]
1705, "to divide into classes, place in ranks or divisions," from class (n.) or French classer. Sense of "to place into a class" is from 1776. Related: Classed; classing.
1766, in a British sense, "class of people socially intermediate between the aristocratic and the laboring classes, the community of untitled but well-bred or wealthy people," from middle (adj.) + class (n.). As an adjective, "pertaining to the middle class," by 1857, with reference to education. Nares reports menalty as an early word for "the middle class" (1540s).
The Negro recognizes that he is a second-class citizen and that status is fraught with violent potentialities, particularly today when he is living up to the full responsibilities of citizenship on the field of battle. [Louis E. Martin, "To Be or Not to Be a Liberal," in The Crisis, September 1942]