contraction of Middle English of feor (late 12c.), on ferr (c. 1300), from Old English feor "far" (see far); the a- (1) in compounds representing both of and on (which in this use meant the same thing). Spelled afer in 14c.
Middle English fer, from Old English feorr "far, remote, distant," from Proto-Germanic *ferera- (cognates: Old Saxon fer, Old Frisian fer, Old Norse fjarre, Dutch ver, Old High German ferro, German fern), probably a development in western Proto-Germanic from the adverb (see far (adv.)). Far East "China, Japan, and surrounding regions" is from 1838.
prefix or inseparable particle, a relic of various Germanic and Latin elements.
In words derived from Old English, it commonly represents Old English an "on, in, into" (see on (prep.)), as in alive, above, asleep, aback, abroad, afoot, ashore, ahead, abed, aside, obsolete arank "in rank and file," etc., forming adjectives and adverbs from nouns, with the notion "in, at; engaged in." In this use it is identical to a (2).
It also can represent Middle English of (prep.) "off, from," as in anew, afresh, akin, abreast. Or it can be a reduced form of the Old English past participle prefix ge-, as in aware.
Or it can be the Old English intensive a-, originally ar- (cognate with German er- and probably implying originally "motion away from"), as in abide, arise, awake, ashamed, marking a verb as momentary, a single event. Such words sometimes were refashioned in early modern English as though the prefix were Latin (accursed, allay, affright are examples).
In words from Romanic languages, often it represents reduced forms of Latin ad "to, toward; for" (see ad-), or ab "from, away, off" (see ab-); both of which by about 7c. had been reduced to a in the ancestor of Old French. In a few cases it represents Latin ex.
[I]t naturally happened that all these a- prefixes were at length confusedly lumped together in idea, and the resultant a- looked upon as vaguely intensive, rhetorical, euphonic, or even archaic, and wholly otiose. [OED]