early 13c., "scales, apparatus for weighing by comparison of mass," from Old French balance "balance, scales for weighing" (12c.), also in figurative sense; from Medieval Latin bilancia, from Late Latin bilanx, from Latin (libra) bilanx "(scale) having two pans," possibly from Latin bis "twice" (from PIE root *dwo- "two") + lanx "dish, plate, scale of a balance," which is of uncertain origin.
The accounting sense "arithmetical difference between the two sides of an account" is from 1580s; meaning "sum necessary to balance the two sides of an account" is from 1620s. Meaning "what remains or is left over" is by 1788, originally in commercial slang. Sense of "physical equipoise" is from 1660s; the meaning "general harmony between parts" is from 1732.
Many figurative uses are from Middle English image of the scales in the hands of personified Justice, Fortune, Fate, etc.; thus in (the) balance "at risk, in jeopardy or danger" (c. 1300). Balance of power in the geopolitical sense "distribution of forces among nations so that one may not dominate another" is from 1701. Balance of trade "difference between the value of exports from a country and the value of imports into it" is from 1660s.
1570s, "be equal with," from balance (n.). Meaning "serve as a counterpoise to" is from 1590s; that of "bring or keep in equilibrium" is from 1630s; that of "keep oneself in equilibrium" is from 1833. Of accounts, "settle by paying what remains due," from 1580s. Related: Balanced; balancing.
updated on December 05, 2018