The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

Second paragraph of third entry (“And”):

Why get so excited over a ‘little word’ like and? In most wordbooks, it’s the ‘content words’ that attract all the attention – the words that have an easily statable meaning, like elephant and caravan and roe. The books tend not to explore the ‘grammatical words’ – those linking the units of content to make up sentences, such as in, the and and. That’s a pity, because these ‘little words’ have played a crucial role in the development of English. Apart from anything else, they’re the most frequently occurring words, so they’re in our eyes and ears all the time. In our eyes? The four commonest written words in modern English are the, of, and and a. In our ears? The four commonest spoken words are the, I, you and and. In Old English, and is there from the very beginning, and when it appears it’s often abbreviated.

I’ve had slightly bad luck with books about words recently, but this is excellent – a guide to the history of the English language, illustrated by 100 words, some common, some less so, some with new meanings acquired over the centuries (eg Doctor Who brought new meaning to the word matrix in 1977). The first recorded English word is “roe”, carved as ᚱᚨᛇᚺᚨᚾ onto a 5th-century deer bone in Norfolk. (Hah, another alphabet for me to test.) Crystal looks at all kinds of influences and varieties of English; the chapters on “dilly-dally” and “doobry” are particularly enlightening. Well worth getting for its insights into language in general and English in particular.