early 14c., literally "a being driven" (at first of snow, rain, etc.); not recorded in Old English, it is either a suffixed form of drive (v.) (compare thrift/thrive) or borrowed from Old Norse drift "snow drift," or Middle Dutch drift "pasturage, drove, flock," both from Proto-Germanic *driftiz (source also of Danish and Swedish drift, German Trift), from PIE root *dhreibh- "to drive, push" (see drive (v.)).
"A being driven," hence "anything driven," especially a number of things or a heap of matter driven or moving together (mid-15c.). Figurative sense of "aim, intention, what one is getting at" (on the notion of "course, tendency") is from 1520s. Nautical sense of "deviation of a ship from its course in consequence of currents" is from 1670s. Meaning "controlled slide of a sports car" attested by 1955.
late 16c., "to float or be driven along by a current," from drift (n.). Transitive sense of "to drive in heaps" is from 1610s. Figurative sense of "be passive and listless" is from 1822. Related: Drifted; drifting. To drift apart "gradually lose mutual affection" is by 1859.
1864, as a mining term for one who excavates "drifts" (in the specialized sense of "horizontal passages"); by 1883 as "boat fishing with drift-nets;" agent noun from drift (v.). Meaning "vagrant, man following an aimless way of life" is from 1908.