Have you noticed? There's a new front in the global war on terror: "aspirational terrorism." The FBI announced earlier this month that it had disrupted an Al Qaeda plot to attack transportation tunnels between New York City and New Jersey. The Associated Press reported: "One US official called the plot 'largely aspirational' and described the Internet conversations as mostly extremists discussing and conceptualizing the plot. The official said no money had been transferred, nor had other similar operational steps been taken."
The official's sound bite represented an echo of a phrase from some weeks before, when officials announced the disruption of a plot to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago.
At that point, John Pistole, deputy director of the FBI, described the state of that plot as more "aspirational than operational." Pistole's words made for a good quote – its almost-rhyme made it catchy, but not as kitschy as an exact rhyme could so easily be.
"Aspire," as a verb, is rooted in the notion of "breathing on" some goal or other – panting for it, we might say colloquially.
That "spir" element is familiar from "inspiration" and its verb form, "inspire." This is used transitively to refer to some metaphorical breathing life into someone – a general inspiring his troops, for instance. (On your camping trip this summer, think of yourself as striving to "inspire" your air mattress.)
One aspires to something (greatness, perhaps) or to do something: "He aspires to finish the marathon in less than three hours."
"Aspiration," the noun, is the goal one is, etymologically at least, breathing on: "His aspiration is to finish the marathon in less than three hours."
So far, so good.
"Aspirational," the adjective, seems a little trickier. The Oxford English Dictionary provides only a rather minimalist definition: "Belonging to or characterized by aspiration." Among the usage examples it cites is one from 1967, "Everybody banging away at that final aspirational aria." Meaning what? The aria the audience knows will end the whole production so everyone can go home?
Encarta is a little more useful here, offering as a definition, "ambitious, showing a desire or ambition to achieve something, especially self-improvement or material success," as in "the aspirational working class."
The world of marketing has given us the terms "aspirational age" and "aspirational brand."
An aspirational age is one whose characteristics customers strive to embody, and in the West that age is thought to be 16 or 17. The idea is that marketers can pitch to this age and reach not only those who are at that age but those who haven't noticed that they are past it.
An aspirational brand is one sought after but not available to the masses for reasons of price and/or production capacity. More broadly, "aspirational," is being used on both sides of the Atlantic (though more so in Britain, it appears) to suggest both an ambition and the fact of its being unrealized.
It's being discovered as a way of acknowledging that the glass is half empty while pointing out that it also is half full. To say that a goal "remains aspirational" is a positive-sounding way of saying you haven't reached it but haven't given up on it either.
And no wonder it's catching on. After all, "aspirational" is a dignified-sounding five-syllable word, which, if you're a government official trying to buy yourself time to think on your feet under hot TV lights, must seem like a godsend. If I were, say, an FBI spokeswoman trying to talk about alleged plotters under arrest who may not be the real deal, I'd rather be able to call them aspirational terrorists than have to call them wannabes. Wouldn't you?
Now excuse me while I go reconnect with my aspirational inner 16-year-old.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.