Meta, meta, meta!
What is all this metacrap? Is this just a bouncy little prefix you can attach to any word to give it a little twist, as in “I never meta-man I didn’t like”? Or, “It’s easy for Metamucil to like itself!” Or, “I had a metathought about a metathought. I never thought I could think about thinking without thinking a thought, but I think I thought a metathought without ever thinking a thought!”
Or, worse, is it a pretentious little tag that says, “Look how smart I am!” every time I use it? Look at me! I can take things to a whole new level. I am not just talking about philosophy, (oh please!) I am talking about meta-philosophy. (See how smart I am!) I am not just having a discussion, I am having a meta-discussion. (How intelligent!) I am not just writing a blog, I am writing a metablog. (How web 4.0!)
If I am going to get meta-meta, then I have to admit yes to both these things. I use it because it is fun to say and because it makes me look smart. Didn’t I warn you that I was going to try to look smarter and wittier? But that is not all. Meta has a meaning or two. (A meta-meaning? No, because it is not the meaning of meaning itself, but the meaning of meta.)
From the Greek μετά, meaning ‘with’, ‘after’, ‘between.’ The Oxford English Dictionary says, “The earliest words in English beginning with meta- are all derived ultimately from Greek (frequently via Latin or French); in most the idea conveyed by meta- is that of ‘change,’” as in metamorphosis, metaplasm and metaphor. English formations with meta- meaning ‘beyond’ — and that is the sense that will meta-concern us here — appeared in the first half of the 17th cent., as in metatheology. Scientists from the 19th century onwards also used the prefix to mean “behind,” as in metaphrenum, “situated between,” as in metasomatome, and “after,” as in metasperm (I like that one). It became common with many new academic disciplines, especially the social sciences, in our sense of “beyond,” or dealing with second-order questions, questions about the nature of the field itself. It has even become a common word online. The blog program I am using has a button called, “Meta,” where I can see meta-data, or data about the data, how many people have opened this blog, for example. (So there really are real people out there reading this! Don’t forget to comment.)
The OED defines “meta-” so: “Prefixed to the name of a subject or discipline to denote another which deals with ulterior issues in the same field, or which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline and its methods, procedures, and assumptions.” The last part of this definition is particularly appropriate for our purposes, because I want to raise questions about the nature of fiction itself (and language and blogs) and its “methods, procedures and assumptions.” Metapolitics, for example, would ask political questions about politics, about how it works, about what assumptions we bring to a discussion about politics, about how the very discussion and study of politics affects politics in the real world. In short, metapolitics is a political study of politics itself.
Some meta-topics that are listed in the OED: meta-economics, meta-lexicography, meta-philosophy, meta-sociolinguistic, meta-criterion, meta-grammar, meta-system, meta-theory, and metafile.
Meta: a popular, pretentious and playful prefix! Use it today and impress your friends.