Studies in Words, by C S Lewis. ISBN 052139831-2.
C S Lewis is best known for his popular theological works and the Chronicles of Narnia, but by profession he was neither a theologian nor a children’s author, but an academic: a professor of English literature. This book is, as it were, a spinoff from his literary studies.
"Studies in Words" traces the evolution of several words or families of words from their earliest known uses to the present day, observing how their meanings and their associations have changed. The trail often leads through several different languages, though Lewis concentrates on Latin, Greek and the various forms of English.
For instance, the first "study" concerns the word "nature" and several of its kindred: "phusis" in Greek (and hence "physical", etc, in English), "natura" in Latin, "gecynd" in Old English (and hence "kind", "kindred", etc, in modern English). All these words have many meanings, some of them interestingly common to all three.
A common theme in many of the "studies" is the way in which a word denoting something that people admire or detest is liable to have its meaning eroded until it is little more than a term of bare approval or disapproval. (Consider "nice", which used to mean something like "precise"; or "villain", which used to mean a peasant.) The final chapter discusses this phenomenon more generally, and pleads eloquently for a halt to this "verbicide" before segueing into an enlightening (though admittedly almost irrelevant) few pages about the difficulty of literary criticism.
Lewis is a very able writer. This book could have been deathly dull, and perhaps my summary has made it seem so; but in fact it is not. It’s clearly and engagingly written, and it’s full of little insights.