Posted by: Casey Lybrand | July 21, 2010

Can’t See the Meta for the Data

What does meta mean, and how do we use it? Have to go back to the Latin and Greek, and then forward again, to find the answer to that, as we do for so many English words. (Though not, by any means, all of them.)

In Latin mēta has several related meanings, one of which is “a turning-point”. In Ancient Greek, μετά (meta) means “amid, among, after”.

“Change” (from “turning-point”) and “after” are still part the English usage of meta- as a prefix. Think metamorphosis for “change” (literally, “a change of form”). More about “after” in a moment. First let’s look at another way we use meta as both a word and a prefix.

Vôo de resgate na foz do rio Breu

Vôo de resgate na foz do rio Breu by Vihh, on Flickr

“That is so meta”

Have you ever said that? It means something along the lines of “that concept is overarching” or “that idea goes above everything and takes it all in at once”. Meta- can also be used as a prefix to indicate the same thing, such as in meta-analysis or metadata. Why use a word that means “after” or “change” to indicate transcendence?

The Online Etymological Dictionary has this to say about the modern usage of meta to mean “higher, beyond”:

“higher than, transcending, overarching, dealing with the most fundamental matters of,” is due to misinterpretation of metaphysics as “science of that which transcends the physical.” This has led to a prodigious erroneous extension in modern usage, with meta- affixed to the names of other sciences and disciplines, especially in the academic jargon of literary criticism, which affixes it to just about anything that moves and much that doesn’t.

Oh, so the problem is metaphysics! As an aspiring SFF writer, I can relate. The metaphysics can really get you. In this case, it can get you to use meta to mean “higher than, transcending, overarching” instead of “after” or “change”. That’s okay. Words can do that. [1]

Interesting tree in the forest

Interesting tree in the forest by footloosiety, on Flickr

“After”, after all

The prefix or root meta still retains the meaning “after” in some words. For example, the word method comes from meta, in the sense of “after”; hodos is “a traveling”. Using a standard logical method, we start at a solid point — something we know to be accurate (like a fact) — and travel from that point to a conclusion. [2] Such as about why we use meta as we do.

Quercus Robur Leaves

Quercus Robur Leaves by EssjayNZ, on Flickr

Thank You

A big thank you to Em the Merit Badger for suggesting the word meta for Word Wednesday. And while we’re on the subject, let me just point out: digital merit badges for grown ups, dispensed by a badger — that is so meta.

Deep in the Forest

Deep in the Forest by ecstaticist, on Flickr

An obnoxiously self-aware comment on the concept of footnotes would be meta:

1: I should point out once again that I am a descriptivist. (Also, I love the Online Etymological Dictionary. Yes, both at the same time.)

2: There’s a practical application of the idea of method to mean “traveling after”. Let’s say we have something as a given, for example, “I am obligated to be at the public pool this morning for swimming lessons (not my own), but I would rather be blogging.” We can travel from that given condition to the practical solution: today’s blog post can start out with etymologies printed from the computer and notes written on, of all things, notepaper. (Or as I like to think of it, the “Look, Ma, no vampires!” approach. All in good fun, of course.)
Meta at the Pool - Text on the Etymology of Meta

Meta at the Pool - Text on the Etymology of Meta

Meta at the Pool - Notes for Blogging

Meta at the Pool - Notes for Blogging

Meta at the Pool - Bathers in the Water

Meta at the Pool - Bathers in the Water


  1. Ah, mistake words. So wrong, yet sometimes they just feel so right.

    Great post!

  2. I love “mistake” words! They make language interesting.

    Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this Casey. Meta was one of those words that just went over my head because I just didn’t get its meaning at all. Now things make much more sense. Love the photos of the little birds by the water. Are they Sandpipers? Think those have little legs that move so fast, they almost look like little clockwords birds..

  4. Nope- I’ve never said that but I’ll definitely start saying it now that I know what it means :)
    It sounds so cool, doesn’t it? “Oh Gosh, that is so meta!” ;)

  5. I’m glad you liked it, Alannah. It took me a while to figure out how to convey the breadth of its meaning, even though, coming from a social science background, it’s a word I’ve heard a lot. (The Online Etymological Dictionary is not off the mark with it’s little jab at academic jargon.)

    Thank you, about the photo! It’s just a phone photo, so it’s hard to make out detail. I don’t think the birds are sandpipers — I love them, too, and we do have them around here. These birds are just little sparrow-like things that make me glad the pool water is chlorinated. They were using the edge of the pool as a bird bath! (Oh, and look: I found a really cute sandpiper video. You’re right, they do have clockwork-like movements. Never noticed that before.) :)

    Lua, I don’t say it often myself (any more — kinda a requirement in some areas of study), and usually when I do now, it’s in a playful way! It is a very cool phrase — that’s why it’s so much fun. You should definitely start saying it! ;)

  6. Oh my god…that sandpiper video is so cute. Yes, the’re little clockwork birds ;-)

    Love little birds myself, and how cute they were using the edge of the pool as a bird bath.

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