Old English macian "to give being to, give form or character to, bring into existence; construct, do, be the author of, produce; prepare, arrange, cause; behave, fare, transform," from West Germanic *makōjanan "to fashion, fit" (source also of Old Saxon makon, Old Frisian makia "to build, make," Middle Dutch and Dutch maken, Old High German mahhon "to construct, make," German machen "to make"), from PIE root *mag- "to knead, fashion, fit." If so, sense evolution perhaps is via prehistoric houses built of mud. It gradually replaced the main Old English word, gewyrcan (see work (v.)).
Meaning "to arrive at" (a place), first attested 1620s, originally was nautical. Formerly used in many places where specific verbs now are used, such as to make Latin (c. 1500) "to write Latin compositions." This broader usage survives in some phrases, such as make water "to urinate" (c. 1400), make a book "arrange a series of bets" (1828), make hay "to turn over mown grass to expose it to sun." Make the grade is 1912, perhaps from the notion of railway engines going up an incline.
Read the valuable suggestions in Dr. C.V. Mosby's book — be prepared to surmount obstacles before you encounter them — equipped with the power to "make the grade" in life's climb. [advertisement for "Making the Grade," December 1916]
But the phrase also was in use in a schoolwork context at the time.
To make friends is from late 14c.; to make good "make right" is from early 15c. To make do "manage with what is available" is attested by 1867; to make for "direct one's course to, proceed toward" is from 1580s, but "Not frequent before the 19th c." [OED]. To make of "think, judge" is from c. 1300. To make off "run away, depart suddenly" is from 1709; to make off with "run away with (something) in one's possession" is by 1820. To make way is from c. 1200 as "cut a path," early 14c. as "proceed, go."
Make time "go fast" is 1849; make tracks in this sense is from 1834. To make a federal case out of (something) was popularized in 1959 movie "Anatomy of a Murder;" to make an offer (one) can't refuse is from Mario Puzo's 1969 novel "The Godfather." To make (one's) day is by 1909; menacing make my day is from 1971, popularized by Clint Eastwood in film "Sudden Impact" (1983). Related: Made; making.
"match, mate, companion" (now archaic or dialectal), from Old English gemaca "mate, equal; one of a pair, comrade; consort, husband, wife," from Proto-Germanic *gamakon- (source also of Old Saxon gimaco, Old High German gimahho, Old Norse maki), related to Old English gemæcc "well-matched, suitable," macian "to make" (see make (v.)). Meaning "manner in which something is made, form, shape, design, construction" is from c. 1300. Slang phrase on the make "intent on profit or advancement" is from 1869.
A big fire devoured a street; "It will make work," I heard my father say; a ship was lost at sea laden with silk, and leather, and cloth; "It will make work," said my father; a reservoir broke jail, and swept the heart of the town away. "It will make work," my mother said; so all human calamities were softened blessings to me; they made "work," and work made wages, and wages made bread and potatoes, and clothes for me. ["The Radical Review," Chicago, Sept. 15, 1883]
"pretense, false or fanciful representation," 1811, from the verbal phrase make believe, which was used in children's talk by 1773 for "pretend;" see make (v.) + believe. As an adjective, "unreal, sham, pretended," by 1824. The noun form make-belief (1833) was "Substituted by some writers for MAKE-BELIEVE; the formation of the latter, being misunderstood, was imagined to be incorrect" [OED].
Let's-pretend (n.) in the same sense is attested by 1904 (the verbal phrase is from 1848). To make believe (v.) in the sense "cause to believe" is from late 14c.
also makeup, "manner in which something is put together," 1821, from the verbal phrase (see make (v.) + up (adv.)). To make up "build, collect into one form by bringing together" is from late 14c., also "prepare." It is attested from late 15c. as "supply as an equivalent," from 1660s as "end a quarrel, reconcile, settle differences, become friends again," by 1825 as "to fabricate artfully" (a story, etc.).
In reference to an actor, "prepare for impersonating a role" (including dress and the painting of the face), by 1808. Hence the noun sense of "appearance of the face and dress" (1858) and the sense of "cosmetics," attested by 1886, originally of actors.
"bewildering, confusing, perplexing," 1733, present-participle adjective from baffle (v.); also an 18c. sailor's adjective for winds that blow variously and make headway difficult.
"make headway by sailing, head in a certain course," late 14c., literally "to push the stem through," from stem (n.) in the "ship post" sense (here the post at the prow of the ship). Related: Stemmed; stemming.
DEAR girl, from noise and London city,
I'm here among the blithe and witty;
Where young and old, from ev'ry clime,
Like adepts, learn to murder Time!
If you've the doldrums or ennui,
Forsake the town and come to me.
[from "A Marine Picture" in The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1802, London, 1803]
Transferred sense, in reference to sailing ships, "in a becalmed condition, unable to make headway" is by 1824. This was extended in nautical use to parts of the sea near the equator that abound in calms, squalls, and light, baffling winds (1848) and the weather characteristic of these parts. "Apparently due to a misunderstanding of the phrase 'in the doldrums', the state being taken as a locality" [OED].