The modern meaning of the word ordeal emerged in the mid-seventeenth century. Before then, it was strictly a legal term, used by the Anglo-Saxons to describe divine judgements made through physical tests (think dunking accused witches in water or trial by combat). These were typically protracted painful experiences, hence today's definition, which was probably first used by the French, and then borrowed back into English. At the time, it was usually spelled ordale or ordel, and that traces to the Proto-Germanic reconstruction uz-dailjam, which meant "judgment". More literally, though, it translates to "that which is dealt out", coming from the prefix uz, meaning "out" (from Proto-Indo-European uds, "up") and the root dailiz, meaning "part" or "deal" (also the etymon of deal, from Proto-Indo-European dail, "to divide").
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a sophomore studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.