word-forming element meaning "in; into," from French and Old French en-, from Latin in- "in, into" (from PIE root *en "in"). Typically assimilated before -p-, -b-, -m-, -l-, and -r-. Latin in- became en- in French, Spanish, Portuguese, but remained in- in Italian.
Also used with native and imported elements to form verbs from nouns and adjectives, with a sense "put in or on" (encircle), also "cause to be, make into" (endear), and used as an intensive (enclose). Spelling variants in French that were brought over into Middle English account for parallels such as ensure/insure, and most en- words in English had at one time or another a variant in in-, and vice versa.
mid-15c., "to act upon or adjudicate" a legal case, from Latin actus, past participle of agere "to set in motion, drive, drive forward," hence "to do, perform," also "act on stage, play the part of; plead a cause at law" (from PIE root *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move").
Most of the modern senses in English probably are from the noun. General sense of "to do, perform, transact" is from c. 1600. Of things, "do something, exert energy or force," by 1751. In the theater from 1590s as "perform as an actor" (intransitive), 1610s as "represent by performance on the stage" (transitive). Meaning "perform specific duties or functions," often on a temporary basis, is by 1804.
To act on "exert influence on" is from 1810. To act up "be unruly" is by 1900 (in reference to a horse). Earlier it meant "acting in accordance with" a duty, expectation, or belief (1645). To act out "behave anti-socially" (1974) is from psychiatric sense of "expressing one's unconscious impulses or desires" (acting out is from 1945). Related: Acted; acting.