formerly also etherial, 1510s, "of the highest regions of the atmosphere," from ether + -ial; extended sense of "light, airy" is from 1590s. Figurative meaning "spirit-like, immaterial" is from 1640s. Related: Ethereally.
late 14c., "upper regions of space," from Old French ether (12c.) and directly from Latin aether "the upper pure, bright air; sky, firmament," from Greek aithēr "upper air; bright, purer air; the sky" (opposed to aēr "the lower air"), from aithein "to burn, shine," from PIE *aidh- "to burn" (see edifice).
In ancient cosmology, the element that filled all space beyond the sphere of the moon, constituting the substance of the stars and planets. Conceived of as a purer form of fire or air, or as a fifth element. From 17c.-19c., it was the scientific word for an assumed "frame of reference" for forces in the universe, perhaps without material properties. The concept was shaken by the Michelson-Morley experiment (1887) and discarded early 20c. after the Theory of Relativity won acceptance, but before it went it gave rise to the colloquial use of ether for "the radio" (1899).
The name also was bestowed c. 1730 (Frobenius; in English by 1757) on a volatile chemical compound known since 14c. for its lightness and lack of color (its anesthetic properties weren't fully established until 1842).
adjectival word-forming element, variant of -al (1) with connective -i-. From Latin -ialis, in which the -i- originally was from the stem of the word being attached but later came to be felt as connective.
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Definitions of ethereal from WordNet
characterized by lightness and insubstantiality; as impalpable or intangible as air; "figures light and aeriform come unlooked for and melt away"- Thomas Carlyle;