mid-14c., "associate, fellow, comrade;" late 14c.,"habitual companion, friend;" from Middle Low German mate, gemate "one eating at the same table, messmate," from Proto-Germanic *ga-matjon, meaning "(one) having food (*matiz) together (*ga-)." For *matiz, see meat. It is built on the same notion as companion (which is thought to be a loan-translation from Germanic). Cognate with German Maat "mate," Dutch maat "partner, colleague, friend."
Meaning "one of a wedded pair" is attested from 1540s. Used as a form of address by sailors, laborers, etc., at least since mid-15c. Meaning "officer on a merchant vessel" is from late 15c.; his duty is to oversee the execution of the orders of the master or commander.