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March 05, 1995|CHARLES SOLOMON

DEVIOUS DERIVATIONS by Hugh Rawson (Crown: $12; 245 pp.). In his third book on words, Rawson disproves misconceptions about the origins of common terms and phrases. Gringo is not a corruption of "Green grow" (the lilacs or the rushes), lyrics the Yankees sang during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. It's an older term that comes from griego, Greek, meaning speech the listener couldn't understand: The Spanish equivalent of "It's Greek to me." Female derives not from male but from the Latin femella, the diminutive of femina, woman. (The ultimate root is the verb fe, to suckle.) Rawson gives popular, erroneous derivations the cold shoulder, an idiom that comes from the Scottish custom of serving an unheated, inferior cut of mutton to guests who overstayed their welcome.

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