Old English læs (adv.) "less, lest;" læssa (adj.) "less, smaller, fewer" (Northumbrian leassa), from Proto-Germanic *laisizan (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian les "less;" Middle Dutch lise "soft, gentle," German leise "soft"), from PIE root *leis- (2) "small" (source also of Lithuanian liesas "thin") + comparative suffix.
From the first, the adverb has been used often with negatives (none the less). Much less "still more undesirable" is from 1630s. Formerly also "younger," as a translation of Latin minor, a sense now obsolete except in James the Less. Used as a comparative of little, but not related to it. The noun is Old English læsse.
early 15c. as a shortening of unless. Extended contraction lessen, less'n, U.S. dialectal, is attested from 1881.
updated on February 26, 2019