AskDefine | Define meta

User Contributed Dictionary





meta (plural mete)



  1. to measure, to esteem, to consider



  1. try



  • /ˈmeː.ta/


  1. cone, pyramid
  2. turning point, winning post (pillar at each end of the Circus route)
  3. boundary limit
  4. goal, end, limit, turning point


Related terms



From Arabic (matā).





  1. mint (plant)



  1. goal.
  2. target.



  1. angle for fish

Extensive Definition

Meta (from Greek: μετά = "after", "beyond", "with"), is a prefix used in English in order to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter. The Greek meta is equivalent to the Latin post.
In epistemology, the prefix meta- is used to mean about (its own category). For example, metadata are data about data (who has produced them, when, what format the data are in and so on). Similarly, metamemory in psychology means an individual's knowledge about whether or not they would remember something if they concentrated on recalling it. Furthermore, metaemotion in psychology means an individual's emotion about his/her own basic emotion, or somebody else's basic emotion..
Another, slightly different interpretation of this term is "about" but not "on" (exactly its own category). For example, in linguistics a grammar is considered as a metalanguage, or a sort of language for describing another language (and not itself). A meta-answer is not a real answer but a reply, such as: "this is not a good question", "I suggest you ask your professor". Here, we have such concepts as meta-reasoning and meta-knowledge.
Any subject can be said to have a meta-theory, which is the theoretical consideration of such its meta-properties as: foundations, methods, form and utility.
In addition to a prefix, "meta" is sometimes used as an adjective ("that statement was meta").
The term meta also refers back to Roman Times. A "meta" was a structure mounted on the ends of the central spina in Roman chariot races. In many of the Romance languages, the term "meta" is basically an aim or goal. Roman Charioteers would aim their chariots for this pole-like structure during their races, in order to stay on track.


The prefix comes from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά) which meant "after", "beside", "among", "with" (with respect to the preposition, some of these meanings were distinguished by case marking). Meta- (along with Meso-, also borrowed as a prefix into English: e.g. "Mesoamerica") is cognate with English "mid-". Its use in English is the result of back-formation from the word "metaphysics". In origin metaphysics was so named (by Andronicus of Rhodes) simply because it followed the book on physics in the customary ordering of the works of Aristotle; it thus meant nothing more than "[the book that comes] after [the book on] physics". However, even Latin writers misinterpreted this as entailing that metaphysics constituted "the science of what is beyond the physical". The use of the prefix was later extended to other contexts based on this.

Quine and Hofstadter

The OED cites uses of the meta- prefix as "beyond, about" (such as meta-economics and meta-philosophy) going back to 1917. However, these formations are directly parallel to the original "metaphysics" and "metaphysical", that is, as a prefix to general nouns (fields of study) or adjectives. Going by the OED citations, it began to be used with specific nouns in connection with mathematical logic sometime before 1929. (In 1920 David Hilbert proposed a research project in what was called "metamathematics.")
A notable early citation is Quine's 1937 use of the word "metatheorem", where meta- clearly has the modern meaning of "an X about X". (Note that earlier uses of "meta-economics" and even "metaphysics" do not have this doubled conceptual structure, they are about or beyond X but they do not themselves constitute an X). Note also that this modern meaning allows for self-reference, since if something is about the category to which it belongs, it can be about itself; it is therefore no coincidence that we find Quine, a mathematician interested in self-reference, using it.
Douglas Hofstadter, in his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach (and in the sequel, Metamagical Themas), popularized this meaning of the term. This book, which deals extensively with self-reference and touches on Quine and his work, was influential in many computer-related subcultures, and is probably largely responsible for the popularity of the prefix, for its use as a solo term, and for the many recent coinages which use it. Hofstadter uses the meta as a stand-alone word, both as an adjective and as a directional preposition ("going meta", a term he coins for the old rhetorical trick of taking a debate or analysis to another level of abstraction, as in "This debate isn't going anywhere."). This book is also probably responsible for the direct association of "meta" with self-reference, as opposed to just abstraction. The sentence "This sentence contains thirty six letters." along with the sentence it is embedded in are examples of sentences that reference themselves in this way.
Other uses more closely follow the Greek meaning. For example:


meta in Danish: Meta
meta in Estonian: Meta-
meta in French: Méta (préfixe)
meta in Japanese: メタ
meta in Norwegian: Meta
meta in Swedish: Meta-
meta in Chinese: 後設
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