active word-forming element in English and in many verbs inherited from French and Latin, from Latin de "down, down from, from, off; concerning" (see de), also used as a prefix in Latin, usually meaning "down, off, away, from among, down from," but also "down to the bottom, totally" hence "completely" (intensive or completive), which is its sense in many English words.
As a Latin prefix it also had the function of undoing or reversing a verb's action, and hence it came to be used as a pure privative — "not, do the opposite of, undo" — which is its primary function as a living prefix in English, as in defrost (1895), defuse (1943), de-escalate (1964), etc. In some cases, a reduced form of dis-.
1799, "a rendering movable," from French mobilisation, from mobiliser (see mobilize). Military sense of "act of putting in readiness for service" is from 1866. Sociological sense of "organizing of latent social energy to bring about change in society" is by 1953.