meta

1
[ met-uh ]
/ ˈmɛt ə /

adjective

pertaining to or noting a story, conversation, character, etc., that consciously references or comments upon its own subject or features, often in the form of parody: A movie about making a movie is just so meta—especially when the actors criticize the acting.
pertaining to or noting an abstract, high-level analysis or commentary, especially one that consciously references something of its own type.

noun

a consciously and playfully self-referential story, conversation, etc.: That dialogue was an example of meta at its best.
an abstract, high-level analysis or commentary: writing a meta to explain the character’s motivation.

verb (used without object)

to analyze or comment on something in a meta way: I spend more time metaing about the show than actually watching it.

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Definition for meta (2 of 5)

meta2
[ mee-tuh ]
/ ˈmi tə /

noun, plural me·tae [mee-tee]. /ˈmi ti/.

(in ancient Rome) a column or post, or a group of columns or posts, placed at each end of a racetrack to mark the turning places.

Origin of meta

2
First recorded in 1570–80, meta is from the Latin word mēta cone, turning post

Definition for meta (3 of 5)

meta3
[ met-uh ]
/ ˈmɛt ə /

adjective Chemistry.

pertaining to or occupying two positions (1, 3) in the benzene ring that are separated by one carbon atom.
Compare ortho, para3.

Origin of meta

3
First recorded in 1875–80; independent use of meta-

Definition for meta (4 of 5)

Meta
[ mee-tuh ]
/ ˈmi tə /

noun

a female given name.

Definition for meta (5 of 5)

meta-

a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings “after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” “behind,” and productive in English on the Greek model: metacarpus; metagenesis.
a prefix added to the name of a subject and designating another subject that analyzes the original one but at a more abstract, higher level: metaphilosophy; metalinguistics.
a prefix added to the name of something that consciously references or comments upon its own subject or features: a meta-painting of an artist painting a canvas.
Chemistry.
  1. (of acids, salts, or their organic derivatives) a prefix denoting the least hydrated of a series: meta-antimonic, HSbO3;meta-antimonous, HSbO2.Compare ortho-, pyro-.
  2. a prefix designating the meta position in the benzene ring. Abbreviation: m-.Compare ortho-, para-1.
Also especially before a vowel, met- .

Origin of meta-

<Greek, prefix and preposition; cognate with Old English mid ‘with’, German mit,Gothic mith
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

BEHIND THE WORD

What does else meta mean?

Meta is when something refers back to or is about itself, like a book about books or a meme about memes.

Where did meta come from?

Meta comes from the Greek prefix and preposition meta, which means “after” or “beyond.” When combined with words in English, meta- often signifies “change” or “alteration” as in the words metamorphic or metabolic.

The prefix meta- is notably used in metaphysics, a form of which is recorded in the 14th century for philosophy concerned with the first principles of things, the nuts and bolts of reality and existence.

Meta-, here, suggests “transcending” or “overarching,” helping it become a synonym for self-referential by the 1980s in postmodernism and popular culture, used for creative works that alluded to their own form, genre, tropes, or other conventions. Think art about art. One early instance, for example, described an appearance of a real-life TV news anchor of Murphy Brown, a sitcom about a fictional anchor, as meta.

In the 1990s–2000s, meta took special root in online gaming communities when discussing the most successful strategies, characters, or weapons. While some claim this meta is an acronym for Most Effective Tactic Available (a folk etymology), it is short for metagaming, using knowledge about the game itself to beat the “game” of mastering that game.

In the late 1990s, metagaming was used in games like Dungeons & Dragons to refer to an in-game character unfairly using information gathered outside of the game world by their player. Meta has gone on, in the gaming world, for anything out of the universe of the game used to affect the universe in the game—cheating, in a nutshell, and making the game less fun for more earnest players.

How to use the term meta

True to its history, meta can be prefixed (e.g., meta-definition). It can act as a simple modifier (e.g., He made a meta comment on Facebook). It’s often used in the predicate, though, as in: that video was so meta.

Examples of meta are often found in fine arts, with, say, paintings of paintings or photographs of photographers.

Popular culture has also gone meta, with cartoons showing their self-awareness as cartoons or films mocking the tropes of film.

The ironic, self-parodying culture of the internet makes it a hotbed for meta.

Nowhere is this truer than memes, which, when they become quickly popular, instantly get remixed into other memes or into memes about their own viral meme-dom.

More examples of meta:

“One meta joke that didn’t make it into the film, however, would have poked fun at the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. have both played a certain turn-of-the-century London-based detective.”
—Josh Weiss, Syfy, August 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

British Dictionary definitions for meta (1 of 2)

Meta
/ (ˈmeɪtə, Spanish ˈmeta) /

noun

a river in Colombia, rising in the Andes and flowing northeast and east, forming part of the border between Colombia and Venezuela, to join the Orinoco River. Length: about 1000 km (620 miles)

British Dictionary definitions for meta (2 of 2)

meta-

sometimes before a vowel met-


prefix

indicating change, alteration, or alternationmetabolism; metamorphosis
(of an academic discipline, esp philosophy) concerned with the concepts and results of the named disciplinemetamathematics; meta-ethics See also metatheory
occurring or situated behind or aftermetaphase
(often in italics) denoting that an organic compound contains a benzene ring with substituents in the 1,3-positionsmetadinitrobenzene; meta -cresol Abbreviation: m- Compare ortho- (def. 4), para- 1 (def. 6)
denoting an isomer, polymer, or compound related to a specified compound (often differing from similar compounds that are prefixed by para-)metaldehyde
denoting an oxyacid that is a lower hydrated form of the anhydride or a salt of such an acidmetaphosphoric acid Compare ortho- (def. 5)

Word Origin for meta-

Greek, from meta with, after, between, among. Compare Old English mid, mith with, Old Norse meth with, between
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Medical definitions for meta

meta-

pref.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.