This weekend I had the opportunity to ruminate about the self-consciously self-referential word meta for NPR's "All Things Considered" and for my language column in the Sunday Boston Globe. That's an awful lot of meta-commentary, but I've still got some more thoughts on meta, or make that meta-thoughts on meta.
First, let's take things back to basics. The prefix meta- upon which the adjective meta is based has an extremely complex history. In ancient Greek, the preposition meta could mean "along with," "after," or "between." Via Latin, that meaning shows up in some English meta-words, such as metacarpus (the part of the hand that lies between the wrist, or carpus, and the fingers) and metatarsus (the part of the foot between the ankle, or tarsus, and the toes). It also developed a meaning relating to "change," which we see in metamorphosis ("change of form or shape") and metaphor (literally a "transfer," as a metaphor transfers an expression to something it does not literally apply to).
The field of metaphysics got its name from the collected work of Aristotle. The great philosopher's treatises on the natural world were called The Physics, and his works on the first principles of things were typically grouped after The Physics. So metaphysics ("after The Physics") originally referred to nothing more than how Aristotle's books got ordered by later editors. But over time, metaphysics was reinterpreted to mean the science of things beyond the physical world. With that understanding of the prefix meta- in place, the meaning of "above, beyond" took hold, often referring to higher-order abstractions: metalanguage is language about language, meta-analysis is analysis about analysis, metatheory is theory about theory, and so forth. (No wonder postmodernist thinkers love exploiting meta-.)
Fans of the writer Douglas Hofstadter will be familiar with how he exulted in the meta- prefix to explore the concept of recursivity. In his classic 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach, he presents a dialogue between Achilles and The Genie. The Genie grants Achilles a wish, but when he wishes for a hundred wishes, the Genie has to appeal to the meta-Genie, who grants meta-wishes (wishes about wishes). The Genie also reveals that "GOD" is an acronym for "GOD Over Djinn" — a recursive acronym, of course. In his online comic xkcd, Randall Munroe satisfied Hofstadter fans by imagining his six-word biography: "I'm So Meta, Even This Acronym" (the acronym of which spells out IS META).
As I noted on Language Log last year when the xkcd strip came out, the use of meta as a standalone adjective was only popularized after Gödel, Escher, Bach (as well as Hofstadter's Scientific American column "Metamagical Themas," from the early '80s). Now it means, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, "designating or characterized by a consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying style, whereby something (as a situation, person, etc.) reflects or represents the very characteristics it alludes to or depicts." If you cast your eye on the meta pug, the pug-in-a-pug-outfit featured on the Tumblr blog That's So Meta, meta-ness in its current meaning will become crystal clear.
As I was delving into the history of meta, my colleague Georgia Scurletis brought to my attention how meta has been used in educational circles to refer to meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) or meta-learning (learning about learning). According to the constructivist school of educational theory, students need to get meta-cognitive in order to be active learners, and it's the teacher's job to get students to "go meta." Jerome Bruner, a pioneer in constructivist theory, has been talking this way since the mid-'80s:
There was also talk about how people go beyond merely knowing about things to reflecting upon them in order to effect correction and self-repair — how to get students to reflect, to turn around on themselves, to go "meta," to think about their ways of thinking.
—"Notes on the Cognitive Revolution" (Interchange, 1984)
In a word, the best approach to models of the learner is a reflective one that permits you to "go meta," to inquire whether the script being imposed on the learner is there for the reason that was intended or for some other reason.
—"Models of the Learner" (Educational Researcher, 1985)
While this may have sounded odd to teachers and students alike back then, nowadays it makes perfect sense, since everybody's going meta.
Update: A metajournalistic welcome to Poynter readers!
Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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