c. 1200, "man ordained in the ministry, a priest, an ecclesiastic," from Old English cleric and Old French clerc "clergyman, priest; scholar, student," both from Church Latin clericus "a priest," noun use of adjective meaning "priestly, belonging to the clerus" (see cleric).
Modern bureaucratic usage is a reminder of the time when clergy alone could read and write and were employed as scribes and account-keepers by secular authorities. In late Old English the word also can mean "king's scribe; keeper of accounts." And by c. 1200 clerk took on a secondary sense in Middle English (as the cognate word did in Old French) of "man of letters, anyone who can read or write."
This led to the senses "assistant in a public or private business" (c. 1500), originally a keeper of accounts, also "officer of a court, municipality, etc. whose duty it is to keep its records and perform its routine business" (1520s), and later, especially in American English, "a retail salesman" (1790). Meaning "an employee who registers guests in a hotel" is by 1879.
Old English lagu (plural laga, combining form lah-) "ordinance, rule prescribed by authority, regulation; district governed by the same laws;" also sometimes "right, legal privilege," from Old Norse *lagu "law," collective plural of lag "layer, measure, stroke," literally "something laid down, that which is fixed or set."
Rare in Old English, it ousted the more usual ae and also gesetnes, which also were etymologically "something placed or set."
In physics, "a proposition which expresses the regular order of things," from 1660s. Law and order have been coupled since 1796. To lay down the law (1752) is pleonastic (the "law" in the figure is biblical law, laid down from the pulpit). Poor laws provided for the support of paupers at public expense; sumptuary laws restrained excesses in apparel, food, or luxuries.
It is more common for Indo-European languages to use different words for "a specific law" and for "law" in the general sense of "institution or body of laws," for example Latin lex "a law," ius "a right," especially "legal right, law."
Indo-European words for "a law" are most commonly from verbs for "to put, place, set, lay," such as Greek thesmos (from tithemi "to put, place"), Old English dom (from PIE *dhe- "to put, place, set"), Lithuanian įstatymas (from statyti "cause to stand, set up, establish"), Polish ustawa (from stać "stand"). Also compare Old English gesetnes (above), statute, from Latin statuere; German Gesetz "law," from Old High German gisatzida "a fixing, determination, assessment," with sezzen (modern German setzen) "to make sit, set, put."
Words for "law" in the general sense mostly mean etymologically "what is right" and often are connected with adjectives for "right" (themselves often figurative uses of words for "straight," "upright," "true," "fitting," or "usage, custom." Such are Greek nomos (as in numismatic); French droit, Spanish derecho, from Latin directus; Polish prawo, Russian pravo (from Old Church Slavonic pravŭ "straight," in the daughter languages "right"); also Old Norse rettr, Old English riht, Dutch recht, German Recht (see right (adj.1)).
[L]earn to obey good laws before you seek to alter bad ones [Ruskin, "Fors Clavigera"]
1894, "anyone of a relationship not natural," abstracted from father-in-law, etc.
The position of the 'in-laws' (a happy phrase which is attributed ... to her Majesty, than whom no one can be better acquainted with the article) is often not very apt to promote happiness. [Blackwood's Magazine, 1894]
The earliest recorded use of the formation is in brother-in-law (13c.); the law is Canon Law, which defines degrees of relationship within which marriage is prohibited. Thus the word originally had a more narrow application; its general extension to more distant relatives of one's spouse is, according to OED "recent colloquial or journalistic phraseology." Middle English inlaue (13c.) meant "one within or restored to the protection and benefit of the law" (opposite of an outlaw), from a verb inlauen, from Old English inlagian "reverse sentence of outlawry."
mid-14c., "the customary and unwritten laws of England as embodied in commentaries and old cases" (see common (adj.)), as opposed to statute law. Phrase common-law marriage is attested from 1909.