Meta- (from Greek: μετά = "after", "beyond", "with", "adjacent", "self"), is a prefix used in English (and other Greek-owing languages) to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.

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). Also, 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 being expressed in a metalanguage, or a sort of language for describing another language (and not itself).

Any subject can be said to have a meta-theory which is the theoretical consideration of its meta-properties, such as its foundations, methods, form and utility.

In Greek, the prefix meta- is generally less esoteric than in English; Greek meta- is equivalent to the Latin words post- or ad-. The use of the prefix in this sense occurs occasionally in scientific English terms derived from Greek. For example: the term Metatheria (the name for the clade of marsupial mammals) uses the prefix meta- merely in the sense that the Metatheria occur on the tree of life adjacent to the Theria (the placental mammals).

"Meta" is also gaining currency as an adjective, as well as a prefix, as in the work of Douglas Hofstadter (see below).



The prefix comes from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-), from "μετά",[1] which meant "after", "beside", "with", "among" (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 just the title of one of the principal works of Aristotle; it was so named (by Andronicus of Rhodes) simply because in the customary ordering of the works of Aristotle it was the book following Physics; it thus meant nothing more than "[the book that comes] after [the book entitled] Physics". However, even Latin writers misinterpreted this as entailing that metaphysics constituted "the science of what is beyond the physical".[2] Nonetheless, Aristotle's Metaphysics enunciates those considerations of natures above physical realities which can be known through this particular part of philosophy, e.g., the existence of God. The use of the prefix was later extended to other contexts based on the understanding of metaphysics to mean "the science of what is beyond the physical". The earliest attested form of the word "meta" is the Mycenaean Greek me-ta, written in Linear B syllabic script.[3]

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",[4] 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).

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.[citation needed] Hofstadter uses 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 when somebody says "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.[citation needed] The sentence "This sentence contains thirty-six letters," and the sentence it is embedded in, are examples of "metasentences" that reference themselves in this way. Randall Munroe jokingly offered a six-word biography of Hofstadter, the acronym "I'm So Meta, Even This Acronym," which spells "IS META."[5]


  1. ^ μετά, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  2. ^ Entry "metaphysics"Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. ^ Palaeolexicon, Word study tool of ancient languages
  4. ^ Willard Van Orman Quine, Logic Based on Inclusion and Abstraction, The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 145–152, December 1937
  5. ^ Munroe, Randall. "Hosftadter."

See also

  • All pages beginning with "Meta"

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • méta — méta …   Dictionnaire des rimes

  • meta — meta·autunite; meta·biological; meta·biology; meta·bi·o·sis; meta·bi·ot·ic; meta·bisulfite; meta·bo·li·an; meta·bol·ic; meta·borate; meta·boric; meta·branchial; meta·can·tho·ceph·a·la; meta·car·pa·le; meta·car·po·phalangeal; meta·carpus;… …   English syllables

  • Meta — oder meta steht für: eine Vorsilbe in Fremdwörtern griechischen Ursprungs, siehe Liste griechischer Wortstämme in deutschen Fremdwörtern#M Meta (Mythologie), in der griechischen Mythologie Tochter des Hoples und erste Frau von Theseus Vater… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Meta — Méta Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom …   Wikipédia en Français

  • META — in Circo, creta erat et terminus, in quo currendi finem faciebant quadrigae et palmam accipiebant: Victoriae nota, Solino, c. 47. quod solae victrices quadrigae, quae metam septimo circumagere anticipâssent, eousque decurrebant praemium… …   Hofmann J. Lexicon universale

  • Meta 4 — Cover of issue #1 Publication information Publisher ShadowLine …   Wikipedia

  • méta — [ meta ] n. m. • 1925; marque déposée, abrév. de métaldéhyde ♦ Tablette de métaldéhyde, combustible solide qui brûle sans laisser de résidu. Réchaud à méta d un campeur. ● Méta nom masculin (nom déposé) Nom commercial des tablettes de métaldéhyde …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • meta — Element de compunere însemnând după sau exprimând ideea de transformare, de schimbare, folosit la formarea unor substantive şi a unor adjective. – Din fr. méta . Trimis de LauraGellner, 05.08.2008. Sursa: DEX 98  META Element prim de compunere… …   Dicționar Român

  • meta — méta ž DEFINICIJA 1. umjetni ili prirodni predmet, obilježeno mjesto u koje se gađa [streljačka meta; pokretna meta; živa meta] 2. u nuklearnoj fizici, objekt izvrgnut bombardiranju ili zračenju 3. pren. osoba koju se napada putem medija ili… …   Hrvatski jezični portal

  • mėta — mėtà sf. (2) Gs, Ms, Glv, Dkšt, (4) K, J, mėta (1) Jrb; SD150, R, LBŽ bot. lūpažiedžių šeimos kvapus augalas (Mentha): Po langu mė̃tos kvepia Šlčn. Sėjau rūtą, sėjau mėtą, sėjau lelijėlę (d.) Dkš. Pasėjau mėtą, kad mane mylėtų Pnd. Kvapiosiom… …   Dictionary of the Lithuanian Language

  • meta — sustantivo femenino 1. Línea de llegada donde acaba una carrera deportiva: La meta de la maratón está situada en la plaza. 2. Área: deporte Portería: El delantero marcó en su propia meta. 3. Objetivo, fin que se pretende alcanzar: Su meta es… …   Diccionario Salamanca de la Lengua Española