early 15c., "to inform, to give assurance" (a sense now obsolete), from Anglo-French acerteiner, Old French acertener "to assure, certify" (13c.), from a- "to" (see ad-) + certain "sure, assured" (see certain). Meaning "find out for sure by experiment or investigation" is first attested 1794. Related: Ascertained; ascertaining.
Entries linking to ascertain
word-forming element expressing direction toward or in addition to, from Latin ad "to, toward" in space or time; "with regard to, in relation to," as a prefix, sometimes merely emphatic, from PIE root *ad- "to, near, at."
Simplified to a- before sc-, sp- and st-; modified to ac- before many consonants and then re-spelled af-, ag-, al-, etc., in conformity with the following consonant (as in affection, aggression). Also compare ap- (1).
In Old French, reduced to a- in all cases (an evolution already underway in Merovingian Latin), but written forms in French were refashioned after Latin in 14c. and English did likewise 15c. in words it had picked up from Old French. In many cases pronunciation followed the shift. Over-correction at the end of the Middle Ages in French and then English "restored" the -d- or a doubled consonant to some words that never had it (accursed, afford). The process went further in England than in France, where the vernacular sometimes resisted the pedantic, resulting in English adjourn, advance, address, advertisement (Modern French ajourner, avancer, adresser, avertissement). In modern word-formation sometimes ad- and ab- are regarded as opposites, but this was not in classical Latin.
c. 1300, "determined, fixed," from Old French certain "reliable, sure, assured" (12c.), from Vulgar Latin *certanus, extended form of Latin certus "determined, resolved, fixed, settled," of things whose qualities are invariable, "established," also "placed beyond doubt, sure, true, proved; unerring, to be depended upon" (also source of Old French cert, Italian certo, Spanish cierto), originally a variant past participle of cernere "to distinguish, decide," literally "to sift, separate." This Latin verb comes from the PIE root *krei- "to sieve," thus "discriminate, distinguish," which is also the source of Greek krisis "turning point, judgment, result of a trial" (compare crisis).
Transferred sense, in reference to persons, "full of confidence in one's knowledge or judgment, made certain in reference to a matter or thing," from mid-14c. (also a sense in Latin). Meaning "established as true beyond doubt" in English is from c. 1400. Meaning "indefinite, not specifically named, known but not described" is from late 14c.
Different as this seems to be from sense I, it is hardly separable from it in a large number of examples: thus, in [a certain hour], the hour was quite 'certain' or 'fixed', but it is not communicated to the reader; to him it remains, so far as his knowledge is concerned, quite indefinite; it may have been, as far as he knows, at any hour; though, as a fact, it was at a particular hour. [OED]
Lewis & Short write that Latin certus also was sometimes indefinite, "of things, the certainty of whose existence is given, but whose nature is not more definitely designated, or comes not into consideration ...."
Hence the euphemistic use, attested from mid-18c., as in woman of a certain age "an old maid;" woman of a certain description "disreputable woman;" in a certain condition "pregnant;" a certain disease "venereal disease;" of a certain weight "obese." Used with proper names from 1785, "often conveying a slight shade of disdain" [OED]. Certainer, certainest were common to c. 1750, but have fallen from proper use for some reason. Expression for certain "assuredly" is attested by early 14c.