1794, "extremely minute particle," from French molécule (1670s), from Modern Latin molecula, diminutive of Latin moles "mass, barrier" (see mole (n.3)). For ending see -cule. It has a vague meaning at first; the vogue for the word (used until late 18c. only in Latin form) can be traced to the philosophy of Descartes. First used of Modern Latin molecula in modern scientific sense ("smallest part into which a substance can be divided without destroying its chemical character") is by Amedeo Avogadro (1811).
updated on February 10, 2019