"in or farther toward the back part (of a ship)," as opposed to forward, 1590s, from Middle English on baft (late 13c.) "back, behind, to the rear," from Old English on bæftan. For first element, see a- (1). The second component is itself a compound of be "by" (see by) and æftan "aft" (see aft). The word has been saved by the sailors (the stern being the "after" part of a vessel), the rest of the language having left it in Middle English.