Old English ald (Anglian), eald (West Saxon, Kentish) "antique, of ancient origin, belonging to antiquity, primeval; long in existence or use; near the end of the normal span of life; elder, mature, experienced," from Proto-Germanic *althaz "grown up, adult" (source also of Old Frisian ald, Gothic alþeis, Dutch oud, German alt), originally a past-participle stem of a verb meaning "grow, nourish" (compare Gothic alan "to grow up," Old Norse ala "to nourish"), from PIE root *al- (2) "to grow, nourish." The original Old English vowel is preserved in Scots auld, also in alderman. The original comparative and superlative (elder, eldest) are retained in particular uses.
The usual PIE root is *sen- (see senior (adj.)). A few Indo-European languages distinguish words for "old" (vs. young) from words for "old" (vs. new), and some have separate words for aged persons as opposed to old things. Latin senex was used of aged living things, mostly persons, while vetus (literally "having many years") was used of inanimate things. Greek geraios was used mostly of humans; palaios was used mostly of things, of persons only in a derogatory sense. Greek also had arkhaios, literally "belonging to the beginning," which parallels French ancien, used mostly with reference to things "of former times."
Old English also had fyrn "ancient," which is related to Old English feor "far, distant" (see far, and compare Gothic fairneis, Old Norse forn "old, of old, of former times," Old High German firni "old, experienced").
Meaning "of a specified age" (three days old) is from late Old English. Sense of "pertaining to or characteristic of the earlier or earliest of two or more stages of development or periods of time" is from late Old English. As an intensive, "great, high," mid-15c., now only following another adjective (gay old time, good old Charlie Brown). As a noun, "those who are old," 12c. Of old "of old times" is from late 14c.
Old age "period of life of advanced years" is from early 14c. Old Testament is attested from mid-14c. (in late Old English it was old law). Old lady "wife, mother" is attested from c. 1775 (but compare Old English seo ealde hlæfdige "the queen dowager"). Old man "man who has lived long" is from late Old English; the sense of "husband, father, boss" is from 1854, earlier (1830) it was military slang for "commanding officer;" old boy as a familiar form of address is by c. 1600. Old days "former times" is from late Old English; good old days, "former times conceived as better than the present," sometimes ironic, is by 1670s. Old Light (adj.), in religion, "favoring the old faith or principles," is by 1819.
Old English fyr "fire, a fire," from Proto-Germanic *fūr- (source also of Old Saxon fiur, Old Frisian fiur, Old Norse fürr, Middle Dutch and Dutch vuur, Old High German fiur, German Feuer "fire"), from PIE *perjos, from root *paewr- "fire." Current spelling is attested as early as 1200, but did not fully displace Middle English fier (preserved in fiery) until c. 1600.
PIE apparently had two roots for fire: *paewr- and *egni- (source of Latin ignis). The former was "inanimate," referring to fire as a substance, and the latter was "animate," referring to it as a living force (compare water (n.1)).
Brend child fuir fordredeþ ["The Proverbs of Hendyng," c. 1250]
English fire was applied to "ardent, burning" passions or feelings from mid-14c. Meaning "discharge of firearms, action of guns, etc." is from 1580s. To be on fire is from c. 1500 (in fire attested from c. 1400, as is on a flame "on fire"). To play with fire in the figurative sense "risk disaster, meddle carelessly or ignorantly with a dangerous matter" is by 1861, from the common warning to children. Phrase where's the fire?, said to one in an obvious hurry, is by 1917, American English.
Fire-bell is from 1620s; fire-alarm as a self-acting, mechanical device is from 1808 as a theoretical creation; practical versions began to appear in the early 1830s. Fire-escape (n.) is from 1788 (the original so-called was a sort of rope-ladder disguised as a small settee); fire-extinguisher is from 1826. A fire-bucket (1580s) carries water to a fire. Fire-house is from 1899; fire-hall from 1867, fire-station from 1828. Fire company "men for managing a fire-engine" is from 1744, American English. Fire brigade "firefighters organized in a body in a particular place" is from 1838. Fire department, usually a branch of local government, is from 1805. Fire-chief is from 1877; fire-ranger from 1909.
Symbolic fire and the sword is by c. 1600 (translating Latin flamma ferroque absumi); earlier yron and fyre (1560s), with suerd & flawme (mid-15c.), mid fure & mid here ("with fire and armed force"), c. 1200. Fire-breathing is from 1590s. To set the river on fire, "accomplish something surprising or remarkable" (usually with a negative and said of one considered foolish or incompetent) is by 1830, often with the name of a river, varying according to locality, but the original is set the Thames on fire (1796). The hypothetical feat was mentioned as the type of something impossibly difficult by 1720; it circulated as a theoretical possibility under some current models of chemistry c. 1792-95, which may have contributed to the rise of the expression.
[A]mong other fanciful modes of demonstrating the practicability of conducting the gas wherever it might be required, he anchored a small boat in the stream about 50 yards from the shore, to which he conveyed a pipe, having the end turned up so as to rise above the water, and forcing the gas through the pipe, lighted it just above the surface, observing to his friends "that he had now set the river on fire." ["On the Origins and Progress of Gas-lighting," in "Repertory of Patent Inventions," vol. III, London, 1827]
late Old English mægester "a man having control or authority over a place; a teacher or tutor of children," from Latin magister (n.) "chief, head, director, teacher" (source of Old French maistre, French maître, Spanish and Italian maestro, Portuguese mestre, Dutch meester, German Meister), contrastive adjective ("he who is greater") from magis (adv.) "more," from PIE *mag-yos-, comparative of root *meg- "great." The form was influenced in Middle English by Old French cognate maistre.
From late 12c. as "man eminently or perfectly skilled in something," also "one who is chief teacher of another (in religion, philosophy, etc.), religious instructor, spiritual guide." Sense of "master workman or craftsman, workman who is qualified to teach apprentices and carry on a trade on his own account" is from c. 1300. The meaning "one charged with the care, direction, oversight, and control of some office, business, etc." is from mid-13c.; specifically as "official custodian of certain animals kept for sport" early 15c. (maister of þe herte houndes; the phrase master of the hounds is attested by 1708). As a title of the head or presiding officer of an institution, late 14c.; as "captain of a merchant vessel" early 14c.
In the broadest sense, "one who has power to control, use, or dispose (of something or some quality) at will," from mid-14c. Also from mid-14c. as "one who employs another or others in his service" (in which sense the correlative word was servant, man, or apprentice); also "owner of a living creature" (a dog, a horse, also, in ancient contexts a slave); paired with slave in the legal language of the American colonies by 1705 in Virginia.
In academic sense "one who has received a specific degree" (translating Medieval Latin magister) it is attested from mid-13c., originally "one who has received a degree conveying authority to teach in the universities;" master's degree, originally a degree giving one authority to teach in a university, is from late 14c.
Also used in Middle English of dominant women. From 1530s as "male head of a household." As a title or term of respect or rank, mid-14c. As a title prefixed to the name of a young gentleman or boy of the better class not old enough to be called Mr., short for young master (late 16c.). Sense of "chess player of the highest class at national or international level" is by 1894. Meaning "original of a recording" is by 1904.
As an adjective from late 12c. Master-key, one that will open ("master") a number of locks so differently constructed that the key proper to each will open none of the others" is from 1570s. Master race "race of people considered to be pre-eminent in greatness or power" (typical in reference to Nazi theories of the Aryan race, perhaps based on German Herrenvolk) is by 1935. From 1530 as "artist of distinguished skill;" old masters is attested by 1733.
Master bedroom, "bedroom designed for the use of the owner of the property," as opposed to bedrooms for children or guests, is by 1919 in U.S. home-builders publications (e.g. Building Age, April 1919). It seems to be based on the English master's bedroom (by 1903) "bedroom of a headmaster or other master at an English boarding school or other similar institution."
The top floor was treated much the same as the two lower ones. Here the closet was made just a bit larger so as to allow for a bathtub, thus pushing the partition forward, making the front room less deep than the rooms below, yet paradoxically larger, because it takes in the whole front of the house. This is what is known in English advertisements as the "Master's bedroom." [The House Beautiful, June 1921]