Ceci n'est pas un meta
May 6, 2012 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Ben Zimmer, the alternate-weeks author of the Boston Globe's language column, The Word, has a column today ("Dude, this headline is so meta") about the drift in the meaning of the prefix "meta" over the past few decades, from “above or beyond” (the metaphysical realm is beyond the physical one) or “at a higher level of abstraction” (metalanguage is language used to describe other language) to “consciously self-referential” ... a perfect meta-commentary on the consciously self-referential age we live in.

While "meta-" itself may have recently evolved in meaning toward self-referentiality, the idea of a work of art, literature or commentary referring to itself is much older. You can find it in many major religious texts, particularly in the Quran. Shakespeare is often metatheatrical, in Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream and elsewhere.
posted by beagle (25 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm so meta, even this acronym
posted by Petrot at 9:02 AM on May 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


Take it to MetaTalk.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:06 AM on May 6, 2012


Obligatory xkcd.
posted by verstegan at 9:09 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Obligatory comment


Dude, this thread is so meta
posted by infini at 9:12 AM on May 6, 2012


Meta
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:13 AM on May 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


I never meta comment I didn't like.
posted by sammyo at 9:13 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a fair argument to say the Greek prefix needn't even imply beyond - but merely "next to" or "after". C.f. Wikipedia
Some have interpreted the expression "τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά" to imply that the subject of the work goes "beyond" that of Aristotle's Physics or that it is metatheoretical in relation to the Physics. But others believe that "τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά" referred simply to the work's place in the canonical arrangement of Aristotle's writings ...
posted by iotic at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2012


template <class Subject>
class Article
{
    string content() {
        return Article<Article<Subject> >().content();
    }
};

posted by scose at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


How you can write an article about that prefix without mentioning Hofstadter is baffling to me. He is 90% responsible for its popularity, I think.
posted by empath at 9:34 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a fair argument to say the Greek prefix needn't even imply beyond - but merely "next to" or "after". C.f. Wikipedia

Meta had two meanings in Greek: 'with' and 'after.' Depending on the sense being used, the object of the preposition was in either the genitive or the accusative case.
posted by Zerowensboring at 9:35 AM on May 6, 2012


Like empath, the first thing I did was search the article for 'metamagical themas.'
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:43 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Meta had two meanings in Greek: 'with' and 'after.'

So I could use in a sentence like so: "I had breakfast meta"
posted by infini at 9:46 AM on May 6, 2012


Metafilter, is this you being me-ta?
posted by bleep at 10:15 AM on May 6, 2012


So I could use in a sentence like so: "I had breakfast meta"

Meta-mucil.
posted by chavenet at 11:04 AM on May 6, 2012


metametamucil
posted by obloquy at 11:11 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Method for Meta, Meta directed MetaLlation?
posted by lalochezia at 11:18 AM on May 6, 2012


"Meta" as a standalone word may be a new phenomenon, but using the prefix to mean "consciously self-referential" isn't. The examples given in the FPP could be called "metafiction" or "metafictional," which is a term that's been used in academia for some time.
posted by asnider at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2012


Kim was here.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:26 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"he followed up on his New York Times blog with “a bit of meta” explaining why he thinks such face-to-face debates are useless. I better leave it there, though. That may be about as much meta as readers can handle."

Heh. I wonder if meta as a noun is always non-count. Probably could use some sort of filtering device to sort the bits out and separate them into discrete units of digestible information.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:34 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


That may be about as much meta as readers can handle.

Considering Pat The Bunny is meta, that doesn't say much for the readers.
posted by benzenedream at 4:27 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


How the hell does an article about a TV show having a "meta" moment end up referring to 30 Rock and not Community?
posted by maryr at 9:58 PM on May 6, 2012


"Gweniffer, hi, it's me, I can't make it. Yeah, well, tell your disappointment to suck it, I'm doing a bottle episode!"
posted by maryr at 10:00 PM on May 6, 2012


Metastasize
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:25 PM on May 6, 2012


Some have interpreted the expression "τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά" to imply that the subject of the work goes "beyond" that of Aristotle's Physics or that it is metatheoretical in relation to the Physics. But others believe that "τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά" referred simply to the work's place in the canonical arrangement of Aristotle's writings ...

Yeah, I'm fairly certain that the story (quite possible apocryphal, however) goes that when the librarians at Alexandria were cataloguing the works of Aristotle, they didn't know what to label the section that came after the physics, and thus simply balled it The Metaphysics, or that which came after the physics. It isn't all that hard to see how that moved from meaning something sequential to meaning something closer to referencing the 'actual' thing while existing in a realm beyond that. I think it's probably likely that that happened directly because of the coining of Metaphysics - it came after the physics physically as a piece of writing, but it also explored phenomena that were sort of on a level that hovered above pure physics while still somehow being rooted in the original purpose of physics, or at least bothered by the same types of inquiries.

I think there's an interesting article to be written about the evolution of the word meta, and maybe even a meta-article about an article about the word meta, but this wasn't it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:23 AM on May 7, 2012


> How you can write an article about that prefix without mentioning Hofstadter is baffling to me. He is 90% responsible for its popularity, I think.

Ben asked me to pass along to the assembled MeFites that he gives Hofstadter his due in his Word Routes followup; "there simply wasn't room to get into that stuff in the Globe."
posted by languagehat at 3:13 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


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