late 13c., faute, "deficiency," from Old French faute, earlier falte, "opening, gap; failure, flaw, blemish; lack, deficiency" (12c.), from Vulgar Latin *fallita "a shortcoming, falling," from Latin falsus "deceptive, feigned, spurious," past participle of fallere "deceive, disappoint" (see fail (v.)).
The -l- was restored 16c., probably in imitation of Latin, but the letter was silent until 18c. Sense of "physical defect" is from early 14c.; that of "moral culpability" (milder than sin or vice, but more serious than an error) is first recorded late 14c. Geological sense is from 1796. The use in tennis (c. 1600) is closer to the etymological sense.
word-forming element meaning "lacking, cannot be, does not," from Old English -leas, from leas "free (from), devoid (of), false, feigned," from Proto-Germanic *lausaz (cognates: Dutch -loos, German -los "-less," Old Norse lauss "loose, free, vacant, dissolute," Middle Dutch los, German los "loose, free," Gothic laus "empty, vain"), from PIE root *leu- "to loosen, divide, cut apart." Related to loose and lease.