HUNK FLUNKS A WRITING ASSIGNMENT

 Author(s): Jan Freeman, Globe Staff Date: August 17, 1997 Page: D5 Section: Focus

The furor over John F. Kennedy Jr.'s essay in the new George magazine, where he criticizes cousins Joe and Michael for screwing up their lives, focused at first on questions of family betrayal. But as the week wore on, attention turned to the greater scandal: that the editor of a mainstream magazine could write, and then publish, such appalling prose.

How bad is it? Execrable may be an understatement. The "editor's letter" signed by JFK Jr. is only 500 words or so, but he can't follow the scent of a thought from one sentence to the next. Others have called it infantile, vapid, incomprehensible, impenetrable -- and all of them are right (Anyone who suspects the critics of Kennedy-bashing should take a minute to read the original. All the commentary is clearer, of necessity, than John's prose, allowing the reader to imagine that it might not be that bad. The thing, however, speaks -- loudly, if not lucidly -- for itself.)

But a couple of particular blunders emerge from the haze with hideous clarity.

First, there's the Quayle-like mangling of a familiar quotation: "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?" asks JFK Jr. Aiming higher than Quayle did, John-John is misquoting Jesus; but you don't have to know the New Testament, or be a pedant, to notice that something is wrong here. "To whom much is given, from him much is expected" is the least this sentence needs to stand on its own.

(The Bible does it better, of course: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required," reads Luke 12:48 in the King James Version.)

Then John descends from theology to scatology, asking "who needs another pantload of platitudes about women."

This metaphor should be enough to refute the defenders who call John's uncousinly criticism a sign of his gentler upbringing -- people like John Davis, a cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy's, who told USA Today that John-John was "much more a Bouvier than a Kennedy." But "pantload" is hardly high-class discourse: Even if Jackie dealt unflinchingly with John-John's diapers, she would surely have turned up her nose at this rhetorical mess.

From him who is assigned to write an editor's letter to readers, not much is expected. These modest essays try to set an inviting tone and give readers a glimpse of life backstage; they need not be written by the editors who sign them, and they're usually massaged, like the rest of the copy, by editors in charge of quality control.

But JFK Jr. apparently did it all himself, thus answering the enduring question of just how dim a bulb he is: too dim to know that he needs a good ghostwriter.

It came from out of pocket

The minority meaning of out of pocket -- unavailable, unreachable -- continues to gain ground, if only gradually, in the Northeast territory.

The older out of pocket refers to money: You have out-of-pocket expenses on the road, and if they aren't reimbursed -- or if you lose money in another venture -- you are out of pocket by that amount. You're also out of pocket if you're short on funds. But sometime in this century, a fair number of people, especially Southerners, began to say, "I'll be out of pocket till Thursday, but call me after that."

The phrase was already lurking around back in 1980, when William Safire addressed a query on out of pocket in his New York Times language column. At the time, he reported, it wasn't yet in any dictionaries, but one informant had picked it up at UPI in the '50s, and several thought it was journalism slang.

Another line of inquiry leads to the South. Joan Hall, associate editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, says the expression is predominantly southern, with DARE's first citation dated 1967. Several of the early examples, she says, applied out of pocket to inanimate objects -- a lost or misplaced book, say, was out of pocket.

One Globe colleague, a native speaker of Texan, suggests a football origin for out of pocket: Texas fans "suffered universal trauma back in the 1960s when Don Meredith would wander out of the pocket against the LA Rams," he recalls. But a sports editor objects: A quarterback is out of the pocket, he says -- there's always a the there.

Nonjournalists and non-Southerners, is out of pocket on the loose in your neighborhood? Let us know what you think of it. And whose pocket is it, anyway?