late 14c., "to represent" (in painting or sculpture), "make a likeness," also "to have a certain shape or appearance," from Old French figurer, from Latin figurare "to form, shape" (from PIE root *dheigh- "to form, build"). Meaning "to shape into" is c. 1400; from mid-15c. as "to cover or adorn with figures." Meaning "to picture in the mind" is from c. 1600. Intransitive meaning "make an appearance, make a figure, show oneself" is from c. 1600. Meaning "work out a sum" (by means of arithmetical figures) is from 1833, American English; hence colloquial sense "to calculate upon, expect" (1837). Related: Figured; figuring.
c. 1200, "numeral;" mid-13c., "visible appearance of a person;" late 14c., "visible and tangible form of anything," from Old French figure "shape, body; form of a word; figure of speech; symbol, allegory" (10c), from Latin figura "a shape, form, figure; quality, kind, style; figure of speech," in Late Latin "a sketch, drawing" (from PIE root *dheigh- "to form, build").
Philosophical and scientific senses are from use of Latin figura to translate Greek skhema. Meaning "lines forming a shape" is from mid-14c. From mid-14c. as "human body as represented by art;" late 15c. as "a body, the human form as a whole." From late 14c. as "a cut or diagram inserted in text."
The rhetorical use of figure, "peculiar use of words giving meaning different from usual," dates to late 14c.; hence figure of speech (1550s). Figure-skating is from 1835, so called for the circular patterns skaters formerly made on the ice to demonstrate control; they were dropped from international competition in 1990, but the name remains. Figure eight as a shape was originally figure of eight (c. 1600).
"dress, equipment," 1823, in phrase in full fig; hence "condition, state of preparedness" (1883). Said to be an abbreviation of figure (n.), perhaps from the abbreviation of that word in plate illustrations in books, etc. According to others, from the fig leaves of Adam and Eve. Related: Figgery.
also figure-head, 1765, from figure (n.) + head (n.). The ornament on the projecting part of the head of a ship, immediately under the bowsprit; sense of "leader without real authority" is first attested 1868.
You may say that the king is still head of the State, and that this is a sufficient basis for loyal feeling; certainly, if he were really so, and not a mere ornamented figure-head on the ship of state. [James Hadley, "Essays Philological and Critical," London, 1873]
Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to form, build."
It forms all or part of: configure; dairy; dey (n.1) "female servant, housekeeper, maid;" disfigure; dough; effigy; faineant; faint; feign; feint; fictile; fiction; fictitious; figment; figure; figurine; lady; paradise; prefigure; thixotropy; transfigure.
It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit dehah "body," literally "that which is formed," dih- "to besmear;" Greek teikhos "wall;" Latin fingere "to form, fashion," figura "a shape, form, figure;" Old Irish digen "firm, solid," originally "kneaded into a compact mass;" Gothic deigan "to smear," Old English dag, Gothic daigs "dough."
1530s, from Latin tropus "a figure of speech," from Greek tropos "a turn, direction, course, way; manner, fashion," in rhetoric, "turn or figure of speech," related to trope "a turning" and trepein "to turn," from PIE root *trep- "to turn." Technically, in rhetoric, "a figure of speech which consists in the use of a word or phrase in a sense other than that which is proper to it" [OED], "as when we call a stupid fellow an ass, or a shrewd man a fox" [Century Dictionary].
mid-14c., "piece of sculpture, carved figures," from Old French imagerie "figure" (13c.), from image "likeness, figure, drawing, portrait" (see image (n.)). Rhetorical meaning "ornate description, exhibition of images to the mind" (in poetry, etc.) is from 1580s.
late 14c., name for the god of dreams in Ovid, son of Sleep, literally "the maker of shapes," from Greek morphē "form, shape, figure," especially "a fine figure, a beautiful form; beauty, fashion, outward appearance," a word of uncertain etymology. Related: Morphean. Morphō was an epithet of Aphrodite at Sparta, literally "shapely."