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Meta (from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-) meaning "after" or "beyond") 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 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).
About (its own category)
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). In database metadata are also data about data stored in a data dictionary and describes information (data) about database tables such as the table name, table owner, details about columns, – essentially describes the table. Also, metamemory in psychology means an individual's knowledge about whether or not they would remember something if they concentrated on recalling it. The modern sense of "an X about X" has given rise to concepts like "meta-cognition" (i.e. cognition about cognition), "meta-emotion" (i.e. emotion about emotion), "meta-discussion" (i.e. discussion about discussion), "meta-joke" (i.e. joke about jokes), and "metaprogramming" (i.e. writing programs that manipulate programs).
On higher level of abstractness
Any subject can be said to have a meta-theory, a theoretical consideration of its properties, such as its foundations, methods, form and utility, on a higher level of abstractness. In linguistics, a grammar is considered as being expressed in a metalanguage, language that operates on a higher level in order to describe properties of the plain language (and not itself).
Meta is also gaining currency as an adjective, as well as a prefix, as in the work of Douglas Hofstadter.
The prefix comes from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-), from μετά, which meant "after", "beside", "with", "among" (with respect to the preposition, some of these meanings were distinguished by case marking). Other meanings include "beyond", "adjacent" and "self", and it is also commonly used in the form μετα- as a prefix in Greek, with variants μετ- before vowels and μεθ- "meth-" before aspirated vowels.
The earliest attested form of the word "meta" is the Mycenaean Greek me-ta, written in Linear B syllabic script. The Greek preposition is cognate with the Old English preposition mid "with", still found as a prefix in midwife. 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". Nonetheless, Aristotle's Metaphysics enunciates considerations of natures above physical realities, which can be examined 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".
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).
Douglas Hofstadter, in his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach (and in the sequel, Metamagical Themas), popularized this meaning of the term. The book, which deals extensively with self-reference and strange loops, 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 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 strange loops, as opposed to just abstraction. 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.
- μετά, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-Engrish Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
- Palaeolexicon, Word study tool of ancient languages
- Entry "metaphysics" – Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Willard Van Orman Quine, Logic Based on Inclusion and Abstraction, The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 145–152, December 1937
- List of ancient Greek words starting with meta-, on Perseus