Old English near "closer, nearer," comparative of neah, neh"nigh." Partially by the influence of Old Norse naer "near," it came to be used in English as a positive form mid-13c., and new comparative nearer developed in the 1500s (see nigh). Originally an adverb but now supplanted in most such senses by nearly; it has in turn supplanted correct nigh as an adjective.
The adjectival use dates from c. 1300, "being close by, not distant;" from late 14c. as "closely related by kinship;" 1610s as "economical, parsimonious." Colloquial use for "so as to barely escape injury or danger" (as in a near thing, near miss) is by 1751. As a preposition, "close to, close by, near in space or time," from mid-13c. Related: Nearness. In near and dear (1620s) it refers to nearness of kinship. Near East is by 1894 (probably based on Far East). Near beer "low-alcoholic brew" is from 1908.