"causing or resulting in death," 1580s, from Late Latin lethalis, alteration of Latin letalis "deadly, fatal," from lethum/letum "death," a word of uncertain origin. According to de Vaan, from Proto-Italic *leto-, which is perhaps a noun from a PIE past participle of a verb meaning "let, let go," on the notion of death as "a letting go." If so, related to Old Church Slavonic leto "summer, year" (from notion of "going"), Russian leto "summer," (pl.) "age, years;" Russian let' (archaic) "it is possible, allowed;" Old Norse lað, Old English læð "land," Gothic unleds "poor."
The form altered in Late Latin by association with lethes hydor "water of oblivion" in Hades in Greek mythology, from Greek lethe "forgetfulness" (see Lethe).