c. 1200, distinccioun, "one of the parts into which something is divided; a chapter or paragraph;" late 14c., "action of distinguishing" by giving a distinctive mark or character to, or by observing existing marks or differences, from Old French distinction and directly from Latin distinctionem (nominative distinctio) "separation, distinction, discrimination," noun of action from past-participle stem of distinguere "to separate between, keep separate, mark off" (see distinguish).
Meaning "a distinctive nature or character" is late 14c.; sense of "a note or mark of difference (between) is from early 15c. Phrase distinction without a difference is by 1570s. Meaning "that which confers or marks superiority, excellence, or eminence" (what distinguishes from others) is recorded by 1690s.