1838, American English, apparently originally the name of some kind of alcoholic drink, of unknown origin. It has joined that class of words (such as dingus, doohickey, gadget, gizmo, thingumabob) which are conjured up to supply names for items whose proper names are unknown or not recollected. Used at various periods for "money," "a professional tramp," "a muffin," "male genitalia," "a Chinese," "an Italian," "a woman who is neither your sister nor your mother," and "a foolish person in authority." Popularized in sense of "foolish person" by U.S. TV show "All in the Family" (1971-79), though this usage dates from 1905. In typography, by 1912 as a printer's term for ornament used in headline or with illustrations.
About 10:30 o'clock there was a snap of breaking metal, and the machine was stopped. It was discovered that the gilderfluke had come into contact with the dudad which operates the dingus on the diaphason, thereby letting the Johnson bar oscillate as it were between Alpha and Omega, thus preventing the dingbat from percolating the perihelion of the gazabo, and causing the dofunny on the parallelogram to drop into oblivion. [from an Illinois newspaper's account of a production delay caused by a Linotype machine breakdown, reprinted in Inland Printer, Chicago, February 1903]
c. 1300, "one-fourth of anything; one of four equal parts or divisions into which anything is or may be divided;" often in reference to the four parts into which a slaughtered animal is cut, from Old French quartier, cartier (12c.), from Latin quartarius "fourth part," from quartus "the fourth, fourth part" (related to quattuor "four," from PIE root *kwetwer- "four"). One of the earliest dated references in English is to "parts of the body as dismembered during execution" (c. 1300).
Used of the phases of the moon from early 15c. The phrase quarter of an hour is attested from mid-15c. In Middle English quarter also meant "one of the four divisions of a 12-hour night" (late 14c.), and the quarter of the night meant "nine o'clock p.m." (early 14c.). As a period of time in a football game, from 1911.
From late 14c. as "one of the four quadrants of the heavens;" hence, from the notion of the winds, "a side, a direction" (c. 1400). In heraldry from mid-14c. as "one of the four divisions of a shield or coat of arms."
Meaning "region, locality, area, place" is from c. 1400. Meaning "distinct portion of a town" (identified by the class or race of people who live there) is first attested 1520s. For military sense, see quarters.
The coin (one fourth of a dollar, originally silver) is peculiar to U.S. and dates to 1783. But quarter could mean "a farthing" (one quarter of a penny) in Middle English (late 14c.), and compare quadrant "a farthing" (c. 1600), and classical Latin quadrans, the name of a coin worth a quarter of an as (the basic unit of Roman currency).
Quarter horse, bred strong for racing on quarter-mile tracks, is recorded by 1834. The word's connection with "four" loosened in Middle English and by 15c. expressions such as six-quartered for "six-sided" are found.
fifteenth letter of the alphabet, from a character that in Phoenician was called 'ain (literally "eye") and represented "a very peculiar and to us unpronounceable guttural" [Century Dictionary]. The Greeks also lacked the sound, so when they adopted the Phoenician letters they arbitrarily changed O's value to a vowel. (Thus there is no grounds for the belief that the form of the letter represents the shape of the mouth in pronouncing it.) The Greeks later added a special character for "long" O (omega), and the original became "little o" (omicron).
In Middle English and later colloquial use, o or o' can be an abbreviation of on or of, and is still literary in some words (o'clock, Jack-o'-lantern, tam-o'-shanter, cat-o'-nine-tails, will-o'-the-wisp, etc.).
O' the common prefix in Irish surnames is from Irish ó, ua (Old Irish au, ui) "descendant."
The "connective" -o- is the usual connecting vowel in compounds taken or formed from Greek, where it often is the vowel in the stem. "[I]t is affixed, not only to terms of Greek origin, but also to those derived from Latin (Latin compounds of which would have been formed with the L. connecting or reduced thematic vowel, -i), especially when compounds are wanted with a sense that Latin composition, even if possible, would not warrant, but which would be authorized by the principles of Greek composition." [OED]
As "zero" in Arabic numerals it is attested from c. 1600, from the similarity of shape. Similarly the O blood type (1926) was originally "zero," denoting the absence of A and B agglutinogens.
As a gauge of track in model railroads, by 1905. For o as an interjection of fear, surprise, joy, etc., see oh.
The use of the colloquial or slang -o suffix in wino, ammo, combo, kiddo, the names of the Marx Brothers, etc., "is widespread in English-speaking countries but nowhere more so than in Australia" [OED].
c. 1400, "a dirty, slovenly, or untidy woman," according to OED "Of doubtful origin," but probably cognate with dialectal German Schlutt "slovenly woman," dialectal Swedish slata "idle woman, slut," and Dutch slodde "slut," slodder "a careless man," but the exact relationship of all these is obscure. Chaucer uses sluttish (late 14c.) in reference to the appearance of an untidy man. Also "a kitchen maid, a drudge" (mid-15c.; hard pieces in a bread loaf from imperfect kneading were called slut's pennies, 18c.).
Specific modern sense of "woman who enjoys sex in a degree considered shamefully excessive" is by 1966. Meaning "woman of loose character, bold hussy" is attested from mid-15c., but the primary association through 18c. was untidiness. Johnson has it (second definition) as "A word of slight contempt to a woman" but sexual activity does not seem to figure into his examples. Playful use of the word, without implication of messiness or loose morals, is attested by 1660s:
My wife called up the people to washing by four o'clock in the morning; and our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others, and deserves wages better. [Pepys, diary, Feb. 21, 1664]
Compare playful use of scamp, etc., for boys. Sometimes used 19c. as a euphemism for bitch to describe a female dog.
There is a group of North Sea Germanic words in sl- that mean "sloppy," and also "slovenly woman" and, less often, "slovenly man," and that tend to evolve toward "woman of loose morals." Compare slattern, also English dialectal slummock "a dirty, untidy, or slovenly person" (1861), variant of slammacks "slatternly woman," said to be from slam "ill-shaped, shambling fellow." Also slammakin (from 1756 as a type of loose gown; 1785 as "slovenly female," 1727 as a character name in Gay's "Beggar's Opera"), with variants slamkin, slammerkin. Also possibly related are Middle Dutch slore "a sluttish woman," Dutch slomp, German schlampe "a slattern."