Old English deaf "lacking the sense of hearing," also "empty, barren," from Proto-Germanic *daubaz (source also of Old Saxon dof, Old Norse daufr, Old Frisian daf, Dutch doof "deaf," German taub, Gothic daufs "deaf, insensate"), from PIE dheubh-, which was used to form words meaning "confusion, stupefaction, dizziness" (source also of Greek typhlos "blind," typhein "to make smoke;" Old English dumb "unable to speak;" Old High German tumb).
The word was pronounced to rhyme with reef until 18c. Meaning "refusing to listen or hear" is from c. 1200. As a noun, "deaf persons," from c. 1200. Deaf-mute is from 1837, after French sourd-muet. Deaf-mutes were sought after in 18c.-19c. Britain as fortune-tellers. Deaf as an adder (Old English) is from Psalms lviii.5.
word-forming element denoting action, quality, or state, attached to an adjective or past participle to form an abstract noun, from Old English -nes(s), from Proto-Germanic *in-assu- (cognates: Old Saxon -nissi, Middle Dutch -nisse, Dutch -nis, Old High German -nissa, German -nis, Gothic -inassus), from *-in-, originally belonging to the noun stem, + *-assu-, abstract noun suffix, probably from the same root as Latin -tudo (see -tude).