c. 1200, "graphic symbol, alphabetic sign, written character conveying information about sound in speech," from Old French letre "character, letter; missive, note," in plural, "literature, writing, learning" (10c., Modern French lettre), from Latin littera (also litera) "letter of the alphabet," also "an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning;" a word of uncertain origin.
According to Watkins, perhaps via Etruscan from Greek diphthera "tablet" (with change of d- to l- as in lachrymose), from a hypothetical root *deph- "to stamp." In this sense it replaced Old English bocstæf, literally "book staff" (compare German Buchstabe "letter, character," from Old High German buohstab, from Proto-Germanic *bok-staba-m).
Latin littera also meant "a writing, document, record," and in plural litteræ "a letter, epistle, missive communication in writing," a sense passed through French and attested in English letter since early 13c. (replacing Old English ærendgewrit "written message," literally "errand-writing"). The Latin plural also meant "literature, books," and figuratively "learning, liberal education, schooling" (see letters).
The custom of giving the school letter as an achievement award in sports, attested by 1908, is said to have originated with University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Earlier in reference to colleges it meant "university degree or honor that adds initials to a name" (1888). Expression to the letter "precisely" is from 1520s (earlier after the letter, mid-14c.). Letter-quality (adj.) "suitable for (business) letters" is from 1977. For letters patent (with French word order) see patent (n.).
c. 1300, "testimony committed to writing, fact or condition of having been recorded," from Old French record "memory; statement, report," from recorder "to record" (see record (v.)). Also in part from Medieval Latin noun recordum, recorda. Related: Records.
The meaning "a written account of some fact, event, or proceeding for the purpose of preserving the memory of it" is from late 14c., as is the sense of "official document of a government department or municipal office." Hence the meaning "fact or condition of being preserved as knowledge, especially by being put into writing" (late 14c.).
The meaning "disk on which sounds or images have been recorded" is attested from 1878, originally also of Edison's wax cylinders, later extended somewhat to other forms of sound storage. Record-player is attested from 1919; record-album " audio recordings issued as a collection" is by 1936. Earlier it was "an album in which to store Edison cylinders." "The man who owns Blue Amberol Records only, ought to have albums in which to keep them instead of scattering them around or keeping them in old boxes, etc., under the piano or the sofa." [advertisement, Edison Phonograph Monthly, July 1913]. Record-store is attested by 1933; record-shop from 1929.
The meaning "best or highest official achievement in a sport, activity, etc." is by 1883; the verb to go with it might be break (1924) or beat (1884). The sense of "aggregate of known facts in a person's life" is by 1856, American English.
The journalist's phrase on the record is attested from 1900; adverbial phrase off the record "confidentially" is attested from 1906. For the record "for the sake of having the facts known" is by 1930 in congressional testimony. To keep (or set) the record straight is by 1949. The legal phrase matter of record was in Middle English as "matter that has been formally recorded or documented" and "legal issue that can be resolved by existing record."
1530s, "action, a thing performed, anything done, a deed," good or evil but in 16c.-17c. commonly "evil deed, crime;" from Latin factum "an event, occurrence, deed, achievement," in Medieval Latin also "state, condition, circumstance" (source also of Old French fait, Spanish hecho, Italian fatto), etymologically "a thing done," noun use of neuter of factus, past participle of facere "to do" (from PIE root *dhe- "to set, put").
An earlier adaptation of the Old French word that also became feat. The older senses are mostly obsolete but somewhat preserved in such phrases as after the fact, originally legal, "after the crime." Also compare matter-of-fact.
The modern, empirical, sense of "thing known to be true, a real state of things, what has really occurred or is actually the case," as distinguished from statement or belief, is from 1630s, from the notion of "something that has actually occurred." The particular concept of the scientific, empirical fact ("a truth known by observation or authentic testimony") emerged in English 1660s, via Hooke, Boyle, etc., in The Royal Society, as part of the creation of the modern vocabulary of knowledge (along with theory, hypothesis, etc.); in early 18c. it was associated with the philosophical writings of Hume. Middle English thus lacked the noun and the idea of it; the closest expression being perhaps thing proved (c.1500).
Hence facts "real state of things;" in fact "in reality" (1707). By 1729, fact was being used of "something presented as a fact but which might be or is false."
By fact is also often meant a true statement, a truth, or truth in general ; but this seems to be a mere inexactness of language .... Fact, as being special, is sometimes opposed to truth, as being universal ; and in such cases there is an implication that facts are minute matters ascertained by research, and often inferior in their importance for the formation of general opinions, or for the general description of phenomena, to other matters which are of familiar experience. [Century Dictionary]
Facts of life is by 1854 as "the stark realities of existence;" by 1913 it had also acquired a more specific sense of "knowledge of human sexual functions." The alliterative pairing of facts and figures for "precise information" is by 1727.
Facts and Figures are the most stubborn Evidences; they neither yield to the most persuasive Eloquence, nor bend to the most imperious Authority. [Abel Boyer, "The Political State of Great Britain," 1727]
Facts are stubborn things is in an 1822 translation of the popular novel "Gil Blas" (earlier English translations have facts speak for themselves).