c. 1300, originally comparative of up (adj.). Similar formation in Middle Dutch upper, Dutch opper, Low German upper, Norwegian yppare.
Upper hand "advantage" is late 15c., perhaps from wrestling (get the over-hand in the same sense is from early 14c.); lower hand "condition of having lost or failed to win superiority" (1690s) is rare. Upperclassman is recorded from 1871. Upper crust is attested from mid-15c. in reference to the top crust of a loaf of bread, 1836 in reference to society. Upper middle class (adj.) is recorded from 1835. Upper ten thousand (1844) was common mid-19c. for "wealthier and more aristocratic part of a large community;" hence uppertendom.
early 13c., "what befalls one; state of affairs," from Old French cas "an event, happening, situation, quarrel, trial," from Latin casus "a chance, occasion, opportunity; accident, mishap," literally "a falling," from cas-, past-participle stem of cadere "to fall, sink, settle down, decline, perish" (used widely: of the setting of heavenly bodies, the fall of Troy, suicides), from PIE root *kad- "to fall."
The notion is of "that which falls" as "that which happens" (compare befall). From its general nature, the word has taken on widespread extended and transferred meanings. The meaning "instance, example" is from c. 1300. The meaning "actual state of affairs" is from c. 1400. In law, "an instance of litigation" (late 14c.); in medicine, "an instance of a disease" (late 14c.).
The grammatical sense, "one of the forms which make up the inflections of a noun" (late 14c.) also was in Latin, translating Greek ptōsis "declension," literally "a falling." "A noun in the nominative singular ..., or a verb in the present indicative ..., is conceived as standing straight. Then it falls, or is bent, or declines into various positions" [Gilbert Murray, "Greek Studies"]
The U.S. slang meaning "person" (especially one peculiar or remarkable in any way) is from 1848. The meaning "incident or series of events requiring police investigation" is from 1838. In case "in the event" is recorded from mid-14c. Case-history is from 1879, originally medical; case-study "study of a particular case" is from 1879, originally legal; case-law "law as settled by previous court cases" is from 1861.
"receptacle, box, that which encloses or contains," early 14c., from Anglo-French and Old North French casse (Old French chasse "case, reliquary;" Modern French châsse), from Latin capsa "box, repository" (especially for books), from capere "to take, hold" (from PIE root *kap- "to grasp").
The meaning "outer protective covering" is from late 14c. Also used from 1660s with a sense of "frame" (as in staircase, casement). Artillery sense is from 1660s, from case-shot "small projectiles put in cases" (1620s). Its application in the printing trade (first recorded 1580s) to the two shallow wooden trays where compositors keep their types in compartments for easy access led to upper-case for capital letters (1862), so called from its higher position on the compositor's sloped work-table, and lower-case for small letters.
The cases, or receptacles, for the type, which are always in pairs, and termed the 'upper' and the 'lower,' are formed of two oblong wooden frames, divided into compartments or boxes of different dimensions, the upper case containing ninety-eight and the lower fifty-four. In the upper case are placed the capital, small capital, and accented letters, also figures, signs for reference to notes &c.; in the lower case the ordinary running letter, points for punctuation, spaces for separating the words, and quadrats for filling up the short lines. [The Literary Gazette, Jan. 29, 1859]
The meaning "examine, inspect" (usually prior to robbing) is from 1915, American English slang, perhaps from the notion of giving a place a look on all sides. Compare technical case (v.) "cover the outside of a building with a different material" (1707), from case (n.) "external portion of a building" (1670s).
c. 1200, "graphic symbol, alphabetic sign, written character conveying information about sound in speech," from Old French letre "character, letter; missive, note," in plural, "literature, writing, learning" (10c., Modern French lettre), from Latin littera (also litera) "letter of the alphabet," also "an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning;" a word of uncertain origin.
According to Watkins, perhaps via Etruscan from Greek diphthera "tablet" (with change of d- to l- as in lachrymose), from a hypothetical root *deph- "to stamp." In this sense it replaced Old English bocstæf, literally "book staff" (compare German Buchstabe "letter, character," from Old High German buohstab, from Proto-Germanic *bok-staba-m).
Latin littera also meant "a writing, document, record," and in plural litteræ "a letter, epistle, missive communication in writing," a sense passed through French and attested in English letter since early 13c. (replacing Old English ærendgewrit "written message," literally "errand-writing"). The Latin plural also meant "literature, books," and figuratively "learning, liberal education, schooling" (see letters).
The custom of giving the school letter as an achievement award in sports, attested by 1908, is said to have originated with University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Earlier in reference to colleges it meant "university degree or honor that adds initials to a name" (1888). Expression to the letter "precisely" is from 1520s (earlier after the letter, mid-14c.). Letter-quality (adj.) "suitable for (business) letters" is from 1977. For letters patent (with French word order) see patent (n.).