c. 1200, "spiritual credit" (for good works, etc.); c. 1300, "spiritual reward," from Old French merite "wages, pay, reward; thanks; merit, moral worth, that which assures divine pity" (12c.) and directly from Latin meritum "a merit, service, kindness, benefit, favor; worth, value, importance," neuter of meritus, past participle of merere, mereri "to earn, deserve, acquire, gain," from PIE root *(s)mer- (2) "to get a share of something."
Sense of "worthiness, excellence," is from early 14c.; from late 14c. as "state or fact of deserving, condition or conduct that deserves either reward or punishment;" also "a reward, benefit." Etymologically it is merely "that which one deserves," and the Latin word was used of rewards or punishments, but in English it has typically meant "state or fact of deserving well."
Merits, in law, is "the right and wrong of the case, essential facts and principles" (as distinguished from questions of procedure, etc.). In civil service promotion, the merit system is attested by 1880 (opposed to the spoils system); the phrase was used earlier in other contexts. Merit-monger (1550s, Latimer) was a common 16c.-17c. term of theological contempt for one who believes that human merit entitles man to divine rewards.
late 15c. (Caxton), "to be entitled to, be or become deserving of, earn a right or incur a liability," from French meriter (Modern French mériter), from merite (n.), or directly from Latin meritare "to earn, yield," frequentative of merere, mereri "to earn (money);" also "to earn pay as a soldier" (see merit (n.)). Related: Merited; meriting.
"well-earned," c. 1600, past-participle adjective from merit (v.). Related: Meritedly.
late 14c., "that which is censurable, wrong-doing, an offense, a crime," from Old French desmerite "blame, demerit" (Modern French démérite), from des- "not, opposite" (see dis-) + merite "merit" (see merit (n.)) or from Latin demeritum "fault," from past-participle stem of demereri "to merit, deserve," from de- in its completive sense.
Both senses, "that which one deserves," whether good or bad, existed in the French and Middle English words. The positive sense in English faded mid-17c. Meaning "penalty point in school" is by 1862, short for demerit mark.
[Young's book] imagined an elite that got its position not from ancestry, but from test scores and effort. For him, meritocracy was a negative term; his spoof was a warning about the negative consequences of assigning social status based on formal educational qualifications, and showed how excluding from leadership anyone who couldn't jump through the educational hoops would create a new form of discrimination. And that's exactly what has happened. [Lani Guinier, interview, New York Times, Feb. 7, 2015]
Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to get a share of something."
It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Greek meros "part, lot," moira "share, fate," moros "fate, destiny, doom;" Hittite mark "to divide" a sacrifice; Latin merere, meriri "to earn, deserve, acquire, gain."
mid-13c., "to merit, be worthy of for qualities or actions," from Old French deservir (Modern French desservir) "deserve, be worthy of, earn, merit" and directly from Latin deservire "serve well, serve zealously," from de- "completely" (see de-) + servire "to serve" (see serve (v.)). The classical Latin sense evolved to "be entitled to because of good service" (a sense found in Late Latin), then in French "be worthy of."