late 14c., "origin, source, beginning" (a sense now obsolete), also "rule of conduct; axiom, basic assumption; elemental aspect of a craft or discipline," from Anglo-French principle, Old French principe "origin, cause, principle," from Latin principium (plural principia) "a beginning, commencement, origin, first part," in plural "foundation, elements," from princeps (genitive principis) "first man, chief leader; ruler, sovereign," noun use of adjective meaning "that takes first," from primus "first" (see prime (adj.)) + root of capere "to take" (from PIE root *kap- "to grasp").
The English -l- apparently is by analogy of participle, manciple, etc., also principal. From the notion of "one of the fundamental tenets or doctrines of a system, a law or truth on which others are founded" comes the sense of "a right rule of conduct" (1530s).
It is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them. [Adlai Stevenson, speech, New York City, Aug. 27, 1952]
Scientific sense of "general law of nature," by virtue of which a machine or instrument operates, is recorded from 1802.
1968, "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence," named for (and by) Laurence Johnston Peter (1919-1990) Canadian-born U.S. educationalist and author, who described it in his book of the same name (1969).
1610s, "occurring at the end," from French conclusif, from Late Latin conclusivus, from conclus-, past participle stem of Latin concludere "to shut up, enclose," from assimilated form of com "together" (see con-) + -cludere, combining form of claudere "to shut" (see close (v.)). Meaning "definitive, decisive, convincing, being so forcible as not to admit of contradiction" (on the notion of "leading to a logical conclusion," and thus putting an end to debate) is from 1640s. Related: Conclusiveness.