also multi-lateral, 1690s, in geometry, "having many sides," from multi- "many" + lateral (adj.). Figurative use, "many-sided," is by 1748. Meaning "pertaining to three or more countries" is from 1802 (based on bilateral). Related: Multilaterally.
before vowels mult-, word-forming element meaning "many, many times, much," from combining form of Latin multus "much, many," from PIE *ml-to-, from root *mel- (2) "strong, great, numerous." It was much-used in forming Latin compounds in classical times and after (such as multianimis "having much courage," multibibus "much-drinking," multicomus "having much hair," multiloquus "talkative"). Many English words that use it (multinational, etc.) are 20c. coinages.
"of or pertaining to the side," early 15c., from Old French latéral (14c.) and directly from Latin lateralis "belonging to the side," from latus (genitive lateris) "the side, flank of humans or animals, lateral surface," a word of uncertain origin. Specific sense "situated on either side of the median vertical longitudinal plane of the body" [Century Dictionary] is from 1722.
As a noun, from 1630s, "a side part;" as a type of pass to the side in U.S. football, it is attested from 1934 (short for lateral pass). Related: Laterally.