adverb, earlier, earliest.
in or during the first part of a period of time, a course of action, a series of events, etc.: early in the year.
in the early part of the morning: to get up early.
before the usual or appointed time; ahead of time: They came early and found their hosts still dressing.
far back in time: The Greeks early learned to sail and navigate.
adjective, earlier, earliest.
occurring in the first part of a period of time, a course of action, a series of events, etc.: an early hour of the day.
occurring before the usual or appointed time: an early dinner.
belonging to a period far back in time: early French architecture.
occurring in the near future: I look forward to an early reply.
(of a fruit or vegetable) appearing or maturing before most others of its type: early apples.
noun, plural earlies.
a fruit or vegetable that appears before most others of its type.
early on, with but little time elapsed; early in the course of a process, project, etc.; early in the game.

before 950; Middle English erlich (adj.), erliche (adv.), Old English ǣrlīc, ǣrlīce, mutated variant of ārlīc, ārlīce, equivalent to ār- early (positive of ǣr ere) + līc(e) -ly

earliness, noun

5. initial. 6. beforehand, premature.
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Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
early (ˈɜːlɪ)
adj , -lier, -liest
1.  before the expected or usual time
2.  occurring in or characteristic of the first part of a period or sequence
3.  occurring in or characteristic of a period far back in time
4.  occurring in the near future
5.  at the earliest not before the time or date mentioned
6.  early days too soon to tell how things will turn out
adv , -lier, -liest, -lier
7.  before the expected or usual time
8.  near the first part of a period or sequence: I was talking to him earlier
[Old English ǣrlīce, from ǣrere + -līce-ly²; related to Old Norse arliga]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
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Word Origin & History

O.E. ærlice, from ær "soon, ere" (from P.Gmc. *airiz, from PIE *ayer- "day, morning") + -lice "-ly," adverbial suffix (see -ly (2)). The early bird of the proverb is from 1670s. Related: Earlier; earliest.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Example sentences
Fortunately, the paranoia currently festering is not yet sufficiently widespread to repeat our earlier mistake.
The new paper records some changes from the earlier report.
They will take your earlier reply and work it against you.
Among the ideas: earlier help for students in academic trouble.
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