Author Richard Lederer doesn’t expect to win any Pullet Surprises for his book. At least not unless there are some exterminating circumstances. After all, Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon Our Language is really a horse of a different feather—an anthology of unintentional puns, linguistic bloopers, goofs and even Goldwynisms (courtesy of the late film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who once said, “This makes me so sore it gets my dandruff up”).
“Language is like the air we breathe,” says Lederer, a donnish 50-year-old English teacher at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. “It’s invisible, it’s all around us, and we can’t get along without it. But we take it for granted.”
The linguistic lummoxes cited by Lederer run the gauntlet (er, gamut) from newspaper headline editors (“Man Held Over Giant L.A. Brush Fire”) to advertising copywriters, students, signmakers, lawyers, politicians and even church rectors (“This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. White to come forward and lay an egg on the altar”). The more than 1,000 entries in his book are “the ripest fruits of a lifetime of dedicated gathering,” says Lederer.
One of five children born to a West Philadelphia textile salesman and his wife, Lederer actually began his concentrated word-watching while a premed student at Haverford College. “I played a lot of word games with classmates,” he says. “One idea was to come up with rhyming course names, such as ‘Brit Lit Crit’ for British Literary Criticism.” Changing career plans a couple of times, Lederer entered Harvard Law School, then switched to the university’s graduate school of education. Finally, in 1962, he took a teaching post at St. Paul’s. A father of three (one grown son is a professional poker player), he was divorced two years ago and now lives alone in a roomy white 19th-century frame house within walking distance of the campus.
Outside the classroom, Lederer hosts a weekly show on New Hampshire public radio and writes a column titled “Looking at Language” for eight small New England newspapers. The column deals with topics such as whether there is a singular for Wheaties (yes, Wheatie, Lederer concludes) and where phrases like “kick the bucket” originated (possibly with the inverted bucket on which a would-be hanging victim stands—and which his swinging feet later kick). Not content with airwaves and the press alone to spread his word, Lederer also makes about 70 speeches a year to church, library and civic groups. With Anguished English now in its fifth printing, he may soon be busier still. A new book titled Get Thee to a Punnery is due this month, and Lederer has been asking his readers and listeners to send him examples of fractured prose for future volumes of Anguished. “I want to inform as many people as I can,” he says. “Suddenly, with the book, my classroom has become a lot bigger. One might speak of it as a tiny language empire—if that’s not too oxymoronic.”