What does ‘glossolalic’ mean

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: glossolalic…

As a former high school debater and debate coach, I don’t think I’ve ever before encountered debating as an event in a novel. Or, indeed, a main character who was a debater.

But the topic takes centre stage in the novel The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. I’ve just recently started the book so I can’t yet report on my reaction to it, but I very much enjoyed Lerner’s earlier novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Meanwhile, however, Lerner has already given me my word of the week: glossolalic.

Here is how Lerner used it:

To an anthropologist or ghost wandering the halls of Russell High School, interscholastic debate would appear less competitive speech than glossolalic ritual.

Based on context, I couldn’t even guess what the word meant. But my dictionary told me it referred to fabricated and non-meaningful speech, especially such speech associated with a trance state or certain schizophrenic syndromes. As well, in a religious context, it can refer to speaking in tongues.

Perhaps like me, you might find the word to be vaguely onomatopeic, with the roll of all those Ls off the tongue making one think of fantastical speech.

The etymology of the word dates back to 1857 (although earlier in German and Italian), coming from the Greek glōssa, meaning “tongue, language” and lalia (also Greek) meaning “talk, prattle, a speaking.”