NEAR THE MIDPOINT of Hamlet Polonius, hoping to make conversation with the moody young prince, asks "What do you read, my lord?" Hamlet replies, with a sardonic weariness, "Words, words, words." Since Christmas I could make the same answer, though much more cheerily. Guides to usage, studies of etymoloy, collections of word games, histories of language, and even dictionaries have been regaling me with odd bits of learning and the pleasantest sort of browsing.

This word binge began with William Afire's On Language (Times Books, $12.95), a collection of the former Nixon speech writer's columns from The New York Times Magazine. Safire, already known about town for his indispensable Political Dictionary, this time offers sensible comments on various pop phrases, cliches and words in the news. Following hard -- and usually furiously -- on each of his brief essays come a thundering herd of letters from readers, reacting to his grammatical errors, failures of judgment, spelling mistakes, and shaky positions on complex points of usage. Apparently, there is no more sarcastic letter-writer than the retired grammar school teacher, the kind who sports granny glasses and a sparkle in her fiendish eye. But Safire remains relatively unfazed by these weekly attacks on his character; as he remarks, "Them that dishes it out ought to be able to take it," and indeed the letters provide much of the pleasure of this engaging book.

The pieces themselves range far and wide.Safire comments on business euphemisms ("pre-owned Cadillacs"), wonders about the feminine equivalent of "macho," and nostalgically recalls the way children garble famous phrases, such as the close of the 23rd Psalm: "Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy, shall follow me all the days of my life." There is much wordplay and punning, as well as a knack for aphorism: "You did not get an education to become natural, you got an education to become civilized." And, like any good writer, Safire can illustrate a point with a good story. "In my own speechwriting days," he reports, "it was my job to go into the Oval Office and say: 'Mr. President, take the easy way. Do the popular thing.' This enabled me to submit a draft that included: 'Some of my advisers have suggested I take the easy way, and do the popular thing. I have rejected that advice. . .'"

Unlike such linguistic hard-liners as John Simon and Edwin Newman, Safire is a relatively easy-going libertarian. Change is inevitable in language, and good; what matters is preserving "the unchanging values of grace and clarity." In American Tongue and Cheek: A Populist Guide to Our Language (Pantheon, $11.95), Jim Quinn boldly takes on all three of these arbiters as well as the entire "pop grammar" establishment. Quinn's point, made repeatedly, is that English grammar should be based on practice rather than prescription.

Relying on his trusty Oxford English Dictionary Quinn proves that usage condemned as ungrammatical has been common among English speakers for centuries. Shakespeare wrote "between you and I; Oscar Wilde said "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." The first line of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" should have read, "Let us go then, you and me." That current vexation like has been used for as by Keats, Emily Bronte and Dickens. According to Quinn, the persistence of these so-called ungrammatical forms indicates their naturalness and rightness. As a result, he believes people should follow their "speech instinct," what linguists call the "drift" of the language, rather than an artificial standard derived from Latin. Quinn also contends that academic English and bureaucratese result not from ignorance but from a fear of making grammatical mistakes: "It is not for me to determinate whom was right; however, it is neither the individual's decision." Quinn notes that "only an English teacher -- a very serious and dedicated English teacher who was also a lover of the language -- could produce a student who writes prose like that."

I agree with Quinn about the living qualities of language, but I think he is off the mark about prose -- unlike speech, it is an unnatural act, one that achieves beauty, wit and grace by building on (and playing against) a set of rules. Communication, after all, is based not on individuality but on convention. For though it is easy to put words down on paper, it is hard to have them make sense -- otherwise writers (and editors) wouldn't spend so many hours revising manuscripts. Despite this reservation, Quinn's polemic remains attractive and often persuasive, reminding us that English is not the fenced-off estate of grammarians but the language really used by men and women.

The Britannica Book of English Usage, edited by Christine Timmons and Frank Gibney (Doubleday/Britannica, $17.95)8 is a 650-page grab bag, overflowing with articles, most of them drawn from the latest edition of the famous encyclopedia. One can read about the development of the dictionary; the arts of letter-writing and public speaking; even the history of punctuation (Elizabethan English was punctuated according to elocutionary rather than syntactic sense). The heft central section focuses on "All You Need to Know About Grammar"; this is followed by lists of affixes and commonly misspelled and mispronounced words. Jacques Barzun gives "Some Hints About Writing" and Clifton Fadiman (with John Morse) discusses "Common Allusions." There is even advice on using the library and a glossary of foreign words and phrases. No doubt all this makes for a useful compendium, but the book still strikes me as a dull, characterless hodge-podge, the kind of reference almanac that a grocery store might sell or a door-to-door saleman might use as a come-on. THREE-RING LINGUISTICS

AFTER THE ELEPHANTINE Britannica volume it was balm to pick up John Train's latest 64-page charmer, Remarkable Words with Astonishing Origins, illustrated by Pierre Le Tan (Clarkson Potter, $5.95). Intended as a Christmas stocking-stuffer, this little etymological anthology should delight at any time of the year -- even if some of its etymologies are disputable. (Train asserts that snob derives from sine nobilitate, meaning without nobility; I read elsewhere that it is a slurring of and contraction of the French c'est noble. Which is right?) Here, for instance, is the origin of the handkerchief: "Chef in French is 'head' (from Latin caput), and a couvre-chef, or kerchief, is a head-cloth or bandanna. One you keep in hand to sneeze into is a hand couvre-chef or handkerchief."

When it comes to having fun with language no one surpasses Willard R. Espy, who has put together Another Almanac of Words at Play (Clarkson Potter, $14.95). Modeled after the much-praised, original Almanac, this sequel serves up articles, poems, word games, and even songs apportioned out for every day of the year.

On January 4, for instance, one learns that poet Walter de la Mare felt that many words missed their meaning: Linoleum, he says, should have been a beautiful sea port on the Mediterranean. Elsewhere among his January entries Espy raffishly relates a series of passages with unintended double-entendres, including this one from Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, evoking the infatuation of Tom, the church organist, with a choir member: "When she spoke, Tom held his breath, so eagerly he listened; when she sang, he sat like one entranced. She touched his organ and from that bright epoch, even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence."

Espy's own contributions -- chiefly light verse -- sometimes strain for sparkle, but for the most part of his book should delight anyone who likes puns, crosswords, tall tales or mildly bawdy jokes. It is worth buying just to run across items like Alastair Reid's famous palindrome (a word or words reading the same forwards and backwards), a favorite of W. H. Auden: "T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I'd assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot-toilet."

Gyles Brandreth's The Joy of Lex: How to Have Fun With 860,341,500 Words, illustrated by George Moran (Morrow, $10.95), though arranged in alphabetical chapters, is essentially modeled after Espy's earlier Almanac. (The title by the way is unfortunate: I thought the book was about law -- from the Latin lex -- not about matters lexicographic.) But whereas Espy stresses the silly and amusing, Brandreth tends to emphasize the unusual and factual. Entries include some of the 1,700 words coined by Shakespeare (among them, critical, auspicious and lonely); the world's hardest crosswords; selections from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (absurdity: "a statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with one's opinion"); a brief anthology of Groucho Marx come-backs; graffiti ("Reincarnation is a pleasant surprise"); a gobbledygook generator for would-be bureaucrats; the world's worst tongue twisters ("Three free thugs set three thugs free"); and famous last words, including grammarian Dominique Bonhours' classic: "I am about to -- or I am going to -- die; either expression is used."

Both Espy and Brandreth can be unreservedly recommended for the word buffs; however, The Grand Panjandrum and 1,999 other Rare, Useful and Delightful Words and Expressions, by J. N. Hook (Macmillan, $13.95), strikes me as a bit pedantic. (Each chapter concludes with a quiz.) Hook's words are not only rare, but also precious and obsolescent. Ablactation, for instance, is the act of taking milk away from, and thalassocracy means command of the seas.Anyone with a basic understanding of Latin and Greek roots can figure out the meaning of such words. But who would dare even use one in speech or writing? The chapters, which are arranged by subject, nonetheless do contain interesting material (e.g. the terms used to describe various sorts of antique furniture), but too many of the words carry only a curiosity value.

This is not so of the jaunty. A Pleasure in Words, by Eugene T. Maleska (Simon and Schuster, $15.95). Maleska, the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, compresses a great deal of fascinating material into this loveletter to the English language. He begins with chapters devoted to words taken from Greek and Latin, moves on to borrowings from the Romance languages and Anglo-Saxon, and follows these with words derived from people, places and literature. The concluding chapters survey the origins of various vulgar English expressions and explain the construction and solving of crossword puzzles.

I first turned my strictly scholarly attention to the risque chapter titled "Eyebrow Raisers." Sadly -- this is, as they say, a family newspaper -- I must content myself with explaining the source of a single popular colloquial adjective meaning lively or quarrelsome. Feisty, it seems, "comes from the adjective feist, a relative of fizzle. It originally meant 'breaking wind.'" There's a lot more curious materila nearby; interested readers should check out the backgrounds of fornication, clitoris, and catamite. Who said etymology couldn't be sexy?

But I do Maleska a disservice to emphasize the salacious (which, by the way, goes back to the Latin salire, meaning "to leap, or cover sexually"). wEach chapter offers interesting words, concisely explained. My only cavil is that Maleska tends to be list-like and breathless; he usually fails to anatomize a word as thoroughly as it deserves, being satisfied to say something like "peccadillo comes from the Spanish diminutive of pecada ('sin'). Literally, it means, 'a little sin.'" It might be nice, in this instance, to be reminded that the word starts with Latin peccare. But these are mere peccadillos; if not exactly a feast of language, A Pleasure in Words remains a toothsome appetizer.

My favorite, because most unusual, among recent works of etymology is Roots: Family Histories of Familiar Words, by Peter Davies (McGraw-Hill, $12.95). Sounds rather ordinary, does it? Well, it's not, for Davies, a former editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, devotes his book entirely to the Indo-European roots of common words. Before Latin, before Greek, there was Indo-European, a language spoken from about 5000 to 4000 B.C. in Southern Russia that helped form directly or indirectly, nearly all the European tongues as well as Sanskrit and a few others. Each double-truck of Roots follows the transformation of one of a hundred important Indo-European words; the right-hand page diagrams a particular root's various offspring, while the left-hand page explains in greater detail the way modern English incorporates this great-grandparent word.

Agros, for example, is Indo-European for "pasture, uncultivated land."

It reappears first as the Germanic akraz, meaning field or plowland, then shifts into the Old English accer, this time also meaning a measure of land, evolves into the Middle English aker denoting 4,840 square yards, and finally turns up as our modern English acre. Another line of descent, traveling this time through the Latin ager gives us words like agrarian and agriculture. The Greek branch of this linguistic genealogical tree takes us from agros (open country) up to our modern word agronomy. This, I think, is enthralling -- and it is a fairly simple case. The Indo-European adjective root meg, an even richer starting point, is the ultimate source for words such as much, magnitude, magnificent, major, maximum, master, and even the Hindi (through Sanskrit) maharaja. Davies' fine book will divert and instruct anyone interested in the linguistic correspondences among languages. AMERICAN AND ENGLISH LET ME ROUND OFF this survey of recent word works with two even more scholarly studies. American English by Albert H. Marckwardt, revised by J. L. Dillard (Oxford, $12.95), has long been the classic brief exposition of its subject. The authors point out that the American language began with speakers of Elizabethan English, later borrowed words from Amerindian cultures (pemmican, chipmunk, Tammany), drew from the French and Spanish of early Colonists, and eventually incorporated terms and phrases from languages as diverse as Yiddish, Polish and Japanese. Each chapter lists the principal words taken from these various peoples. Regionalism, genteel speech, and cultural dialects (especially Black English, which Dillard has studied extensively) receive especial attention.Not exactly scintillating, this book nevertheless contains much useful matter about English in America.

There is equally no duff gen ("bum dope") in Norman W. Schur's English English (Verbatim, Box 668, Essex, Connecticut 06426, $24.95). Most Americans have little idea how different English in England can be; there's a lot more than just saying lorry instead of truck. Fanny, for instance, is for us a rather affectionate word for posterior; in England, it can be the vulgar term for quite another part of a woman's anatomy. Schur is an urbane, knowledgeable and slightly mischievous guide to both languages his definitions and comments recall an earlier age, when dictionaries were made by men like Johnson and Webster, rather than by committees. English English will inform you that the curse of Scotland denotes the nine of diamonds (though no one seems to know why); to have square eyes is to be a television addict; a nice bit of work refers to a pretty girl; a pantechnicon isn't a movie house but a moving van; plimsolls are sneakers; shirty means vexed.

All in all, anyone planning a trip to London should enjoy this splendid labor of love and scholarship; he or she will almost certainly go on the razzle with it -- oops, I mean, on a spree. Those who have been to England's green and pleasant land will get misty just turning the pages.