RANCHO SANTA FE — Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird, arguing that the bald eagle was “of a bad moral character.”Richard Lederer amuses with obscure facts like this while giving an overview of the nation’s past in his new book “American Trivia: What We Should All Know about U.S. History, Culture and Geography.”
“Often in history class we get a succession of dates and it doesn’t stick,” Lederer said. “This is a standalone book that’s intended to bring history to life.”
In the vein of his new book, which was co-authored with Caroline McCullagh, Lederer will speak about U.S. presidents and their role in history at the Rancho Santa Fe Senior Center Feb. 24 at 2 p.m.
Lederer will offer “a treasury of fascinating firsts, mosts, and onlys about American presidents,” as the event’s program states. If you think John F. Kennedy was the U.S.’s youngest president, then Lederer is ready to set you straight.
Lederer is the author of more than 40 books about language, history and humor. Drawing from what he learned while researching his newest book, Lederer will regale listeners with other interesting tales that slipped between the cracks of history.
“Writing is an amazing way to learn,” Lederer said. “I discovered a wealth of things I didn’t know before, and it’s a lot. For example, take the interesting deaths of presidents 20 years apart.”
Before unearthing history, Lederer uncovered the meaning behind language.
A self-described “verbivore,” Lederer is best known for hosting “A Way With Words” on KPBS, a program that analyzes language — typically puns, grammar and proverbs — in funny and informative fashion. He retired from the show in 2006, but still dissects language in a column called “Looking at Language” that appears in newspapers and magazines throughout the country.
His ability to deconstruct whirs into gear when the word “wow” is uttered during conversation.
“‘Wow’ is a palindrome, each letter has left-right symmetry,” Lederer explains. “The ‘o’ in the word has quadrant symmetry. If you flip it over, you get ‘mom,’ in an area called logology.”
It’s simple stuff for Lederer, who’s also an expert on anagrams and homophones, among other forms of wordplay.
His take on the word Mensa?
“Mensa comes from a latin root that means he who got up in beat up in high school,” deadpans Lederer, who served as the San Diego chapter’s past president.
Lederer’s use of humor and wordplay earned him Toastmaster International’s Golden Gavel Award in 2002. Another key to Lederer’s speaking success: He puts the Q&A sessions in the middle of his performances, giving him the opportunity to riff at the audience’s questions.
“The older you get the less agenda conscious you become,” Lederer said. “The facts will eventually come out. Questions in the middle let me know go in several directions and keep the audience engaged.”
Lederer is especially excited to bring his oratory skills to the Rancho Santa Fe Senior Center.
“It’s a very bright group of people there,” Lederer said. “The Rancho Santa Fe citizens make education a fun and life-long process. The Center is really trying to build their programs and extend their outreach, and I really respect that,” Lederer said.
The Rancho Sante Fe Senior Center is a nonprofit that provides resources, educational programs and social activities. Lederer will also speak at the Center for a three-part series about language in September.
“We’re delighted to have Richard,” said Terrie Litwin, executive director of the Rancho Santa Fe Senior Center. “He’s a perfect match for what we do in that he’s entertaining and informative.”