Meta is so meta


“A Film Critic Gets Meta (As Does Ours) In ‘The Film Critic (El Crítico),” ran the headline for a recent piece by NPR’s film critic Bob Mondello.

And he’s not talking about movie reviewers drinking Ethiopian beer on the job; this is all about an X about X … (i.e. a film critic writing about a film critic). As Mondello goes on to say: “A film critic doesn’t often have to review movies about film critics — probably a good thing — but sometimes, as with Hernán Guerschuny’s postmodern rom-com The Film Critic (El crítico), there’s nothing to be done.”

Most of us have heard of metaphysics or metadata — although whether we understand exactly what the meta- means in each case is another matter. But there’s a modern sense of meta — a word or prefix that has been kicking around on American tongues since the ’80s — as a self-referential device referring (usually when describing a creative work) to itself or to something about its own genre. It’s “an X about X” …

“Metadata” are data about data (i.e. who has produced them, what format the data are in etc.). “Metamemory” refers to someone’s knowledge about whether or not they would remember something if they concentrated on trying to remember it. “Meta-cognition” is cognition about cognition; “meta-emotion” is emotion about emotion; “meta-discussion” is discussion about discussion; a “meta-joke” is a joke about jokes. Wikipedia, the Wikipedia page about Wikipedia, is an example of a meta Wikipedia page.

From the Greek word meta, meaning “with”,” across”, “beyond” or “after”, meta‘s use in English dates back to the word metaphysics. This was the title of one of Aristotle’s books, so named quite simply because it followed his work Physics — i.e. it signified “the book that comes after the book entitled Physics“. But Latin writers misinterpreted the name and read much more into it — dare I say in a metaphorical sense — taking metaphysics to mean “the science of what is beyond the physical”. So the meta prefix was born, and it slowly extended to other notions beyond physics, meaning “beyond”.

But instead of continuing to go beyond, meta looped back and became all about itself some time in the early half of the 20th century. A notable early example came when Willard Van Orman Quine used the word metatheorem in his 1937 article “Logic Based on Inclusion and Abstraction” in the Journal of Symbolic Logic; here, meta- clearly had the modern meaning of “an X about X”: i.e. a logical theory about logic. Douglas Hofstadter, in his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach (and in the sequel, Metamagical Themas), referred to Quine’s work and dealt extensively with self-reference and strange loops; Hofstadter is probably responsible for the popularity of the modern 4-letter prefix and adjective that is now so meta.

But it does seem to be an Americanism, this self-referential meta (often preceded by the very 21st-century “so” — see examples below), and not something Brits will necessarily use or understand in colloquial use. The Corpus of Contemporary American English cites 204 instances of the word meta; the British National Corpus returns only 23 results, most of which are either proper names or refer to metadata or meta analysis.

Here’s a definition of the modern meta on

A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.

“So I just saw this film about these people making a movie, and the movie they were making was about the film industry…”
“Dude, that’s so meta. Stop before my brain explodes.”

— by Dara L, Oct 2005

The Oxford English Dictionary (New Shorter edition from 1993) gives the following definition for metamessage: “n. an ulterior or underlying massage [sic], an innuendo”. Whether that’s an innocent typo or a deliberate metamessage, we’ll probably never know. But it’s so meta.




“I see it now, when I’m back in New York. Everything there is so meta. You look at someone — in the subway, on the street, you’re sizing them up — and they see you and stare back, so now they’re looking at you looking at them, and you’re looking at them looking at you. You’re not being friendly, you’re being aware.” A Jew in the Northwest by William Deresiewicz.

“Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar have just given us the most epic ’90s reunion of the year so far, with their Cruel Intentions night out. Of course, what better way for them to spend the evening than going to see the musical version of the film they all starred in? So meta.” — Cosmopolitan

“In a quirky bit of post-modernism, we also learned that bin Laden had learned what we learned about him. A 2006 report that I co-authored with colleagues at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center included a discussion of al-Qaeda’s application forms. It was on bin Laden’s bookshelf, apparently right next to the new application form. It is all so meta.” — War on the Rocks


Hat-tip to Jake, Flo and Lil for the idea

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