"great, large; much, abundant; a great deal," a dialectal survival of Old English micel, mycel "great, intense, big, long, much, many," from Proto-Germanic *mekilaz (source also of Old Saxon mikil, Old Norse mikill, Old High German mihhil, Gothic mikils), from PIE root *meg- "great." Its main modern form is much (q.v.); the common Middle English form was muchel. The phonetic development of the dialectal survival is obscure and might reflect Old Norse influence. Related: Mickleness. Middle English had muchel-what (pron.) "many various things."
"a metropolis; a very large, heavily populated urban complex," 1832, from Greek megas (genitive megalou) "great" (see mickle) + polis "city" (see polis). The word was used in classical times as an epithet of great cities (Athens, Syracuse, Alexandria), and it also was the name of a former city in Arcadia. Related: Megalopolitan.
Old English great "big, tall, thick, stout, massive; coarse," from West Germanic *grauta- "coarse, thick" (source also of Old Saxon grot, Old Frisian grat, Dutch groot, German groß "great"). If the original sense was "coarse," it is perhaps from PIE root *ghreu- "to rub, grind," via the notion of "coarse grain," then "coarse," then "great;" but "the connextion is not free from difficulty" [OED].
It took over much of the sense of Middle English mickle, and itself now is largely superseded by big and large except in reference to non-material things. In the sense of "excellent, wonderful" great is attested from 1848.
Great White Way "Broadway in New York City" is from 1901, in reference to brilliant street illumination. The Great Lakes of North America so called by 1726, perhaps 1690s. Great Spirit "high deity of the North American Indians," 1703, originally translates Ojibwa kitchi manitou. The Great War originally (1887) referred to the Napoleonic Wars, later (1914) to what we now call World War I (see world).
"The Great War" — as, until the fall of France, the British continued to call the First World War in order to avoid admitting to themselves that they were now again engaged in a war of the same magnitude. [Arnold Toynbee, "Experiences," 1969]
Also formerly with a verb form, Old English greatian "to become enlarged," Middle English greaten "to become larger, increase, grow; become visibly pregnant," which became archaic after 17c.
Old English mast "greatest in number, amount, or extent; largest," earlier mæst, from Proto-Germanic *maistaz (source also of Old Saxon mest, Old Frisian mast, Old Norse mestr, Dutch meest, German meist, Gothic maists "most"), superlative form of Proto-Germanic *maiz, root of Old English ma, mara (see more). Used in Old English as superlative of micel "great, large" (see mickle), hence, in later use, superlative of much. The vowel has been influenced by more.
Original sense of "greatest" survives in phrase for the most part (mid-14c.; late Old English had þa mæste dæl). Slang the most meaning "the best, extremely good" is attested from 1953. Also used as an adverb in Old English and in late Old English as a noun, "the greatest or greater number." The sense of "greatest value or advantage" in the phrase make the most of (something) is by 1520s. Related: Mostly.
Double superlative mostest "greatest amount or degree" is by 1849 in U.S. Southern and African-American vernacular. The formula for victory in battle attributed to famously unschooled Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest is first attested (1886) as Git thar the fastest with the mostest men.
From 15c.-17c. English also had mostwhat "for the most part," mostwhen "on most occasions," mostwhere "in most places."
It forms all or part of: acromegaly; Almagest; Charlemagne; maestro; magisterial; magistral; magistrate; Magna Carta; magnate; magnitude; magnum; magnanimity; magnanimous; magni-; Magnificat; magnificence; magnificent; magnify; magniloquence; magniloquent; Magnus; maharajah; maharishi; mahatma; Mahayana; Maia; majesty; major; major-domo; majority; majuscule; master; maxim; maximum; may (v.2) "to take part in May Day festivities;" May; mayor; mega-; megalo-; mickle; Mister; mistral; mistress; much; omega.
It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Armenian mets "great;" Sanskrit mahat- "great, mazah- "greatness;" Avestan mazant- "great;" Hittite mekkish "great, large;" Greek megas "great, large;" Latin magnus "great, large, much, abundant," major "greater," maximus "greatest;" Middle Irish mag, maignech "great, large;" Middle Welsh meith "long, great."
Old English mara "greater, relatively greater, more, stronger, mightier," used as a comparative of micel "great" (see mickle), from Proto-Germanic *maiz (source also of Old Saxon mera, Old Norse meiri, Old Frisian mara, Middle Dutch mere, Old High German meriro, German mehr, Gothic maiza), from PIE *meis- (source also of Avestan mazja "greater," Old Irish mor "great," Welsh mawr "great," Greek -moros "great," Oscan mais "more"), perhaps from a root *me- "big."
Sometimes used as an adverb in Old English ("in addition"), but Old English generally used related ma "more" as adverb and noun. This became Middle English mo, but more in this sense began to predominate in later Middle English.
"Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
"I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."
"You mean you can't take less," said the Hatter: "it's very easy to take more than nothing."
As a noun, "a greater quantity, amount, or number," in Old English. More and more "larger and larger amounts" is from 12c. More or less "in a greater or lesser degree" is from early 13c.; appended to a statement to indicate nearness but not precision, from 1580s. The more the merrier "the larger the company the greater the enjoyment" is from late 14c. (þe mo þe myryer).
"rarely, not often, infrequently," late Old English and early Middle English seldum, an alteration of seldan "infrequently, rarely," from Proto-Germanic *selda- "strange, rare" (source also of Old Norse sjaldan, Old Frisian selden, Dutch zelden, Old High German seltan, German selten), a word of uncertain etymology. Perhaps ultimately from the base of self (q.v.).
The form shifted apparently on analogy of adverbial dative plurals in -um (as in whilom "at one time," from Old English hwilum, from the source of while). The same development also created litlum from little, miclum from mickle. Also compare random, ransom. The forms in -n decreased from 14c. and faded out in 16c.
Old English seldan had comparative seldor, superlative seldost; in early Middle English, as seldan changed form and lost its connection with these, selde was back-formed as a positive. Shakespeare uses seld-shown "rarely exhibited." Some compounds using the old form survived through Middle English, such as selcouth "rarely or little-known, unusual, strange, wonderful," from Old English selcuð, seld-cuð, from seldan + cuð (see couth).
German seltsam "strange, odd," Dutch zeldzaam are cognates of seldom, but with the second element conformed to their cognates of -some. Related: Seldomness.
Seldom-times "rarely, hardly ever" is from mid-15c. (earlier was seld-when, Old English seldhwanne "rarely," which lasted until 16c.). Seldom-seen "rarely encountered" is from mid-15c.; older was seld-seen (Middle English seld-sen, from Old English seldsiene), which lasted long enough to appear in Marlowe (seildsene, 1590s).