late 14c., "visible sign, indication," from Old French signal, seignal "seal, imprint, sign, mark," from Medieval Latin signale "a signal," from Late Latin signalis (adj.) "used as a signal, pertaining to a sign," from Latin signum "signal, sign" (see sign (n.)). Restricted sense "agreed-upon sign (to commence or desist, etc.) is from 1590s. Meaning "modulation of an electric current" is from 1855.