Meta, meta, meta! This little prefix is getting more and more popular.
After fairly steady usage, in the 1940’s, the prefix “meta” started becoming more common. However, since the 70’s, it has really taken off. (Check out Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks its usage over time.) Now it seems you can attach the prefix to just about any word: metafiction, meta-painting, metacomic, Metamucil, and so on.) But what the hell does it mean?
From the Greek μετά, meaning ‘with’, ‘after’, ‘between.’ The Oxford English Dictionary explains, “The earliest words in English beginning with the prefix “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.