You know what? I’d love to write a column about the word meta. I could explain how meta started off as a prefix meaning “above or beyond” (the metaphysical realm is beyond the physical one) or “at a higher level of abstraction” (metalanguage is language used to describe other language). Then I could talk about how meta broke free as a standalone adjective to mean “consciously self-referential” and has become a perfect meta-commentary on the consciously self-referential age we live in. Maybe I could even start the column with an introduction about wanting to write about the word meta.
Scratch that. Let’s try again. I could open with some pop-culture references. Like that live episode of “30 Rock” the other week, which began with the characters debating the merits of live television for their show-within-a-show. Now that was meta. So was the previous episode, in which Tina Fey as Liz Lemon compared herself to Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown, her predecessor as a single woman on a television show about a television show.
Oh, and if I’m talking about “Murphy Brown,” I might want to mention that one episode back in 1989 where a network is creating a sitcom based on Murphy Brown’s career as an anchorwoman, and they want Murphy herself to make a guest appearance. But then real-life anchorwoman Connie Chung, playing herself, makes a guest appearance to tell Murphy that it would damage her credibility to appear on a sitcom. I could point out that Michael Grunwald, writing for The Boston Globe in 1993, used the “Murphy Brown” episode as an example of a trend toward meta-entertainment. “That was just plain meta,” Grunwald wrote. “No other way to describe it.” Of course, it wasn’t as meta as a Globe column about meta citing a Globe column about meta.
I ought to make a sweeping statement about the meta-ness of our current culture, where everything, it seems, can instantly become self-referential, self-conscious, and self-parodying. Observing the frenzied feedback loop of social networking and electronic communication can feel like looking through a dizzying hall of mirrors. Small wonder, then, that “#meta” has become a popular hashtag on Twitter—useful, for instance, when Alabama librarian Lauren Dodd tweeted, “Just saw a librarian shush other librarians at a library conference.” And then there is the “That’s So Meta” Tumblr blog, where one can find images like the “meta pug,” a pug dog dressed up by its owner in. . . a pug outfit.
Timely references are all well and good, but don’t people read this column to dig a little deeper into word history? I mean, who could have predicted that meta would take off as it did? Hang on, somebody did predict it. In 1988, when meta was making waves as a prefix, Noam Cohen wrote a piece for The New Republic called “Meta-Musings.” Cohen quoted Merriam-Webster editor David Justice as saying that meta was “currently the fashionable prefix” and that it could soon follow retro as a word that stands on its own. He even gave the nicely recursive example, “Wow, this sentence is so meta.”
But maybe we can go back even further than that. In recent years, educators have talked about getting students to “go meta,” meaning to be “metacognitive”—having them actively think about the learning process. The educational psychologist Jerome Bruner, it turns out, was using meta in this sense as early as 1984. In the journal Interchange he presented ideas about “how to get students to reflect, to turn around on themselves, to go ‘meta,’ to think about their ways of thinking.”
Going even further back, things were already getting a little meta in the 1970s. The trippy neuroscientist John C. Lilly, whose consciousness-raising experiments inspired the movie “Altered States,” thought you could achieve mind over matter by “programming and metaprogramming the biocomputer.” In “The Dyadic Cyclone,” written in 1976 with his wife, Antonietta, he described “going meta” as “the process of getting out of the programs into the metaprogrammic level”—whatever that means.
Any computer-savvy people reading the column would be annoyed if I didn’t mention that the old MIT computer keyboards, such as the legendary “space-cadet keyboard,” had a special control key called the “meta” key. The techie types loved that word: Mark Liberman, now a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recalls a catchphrase circulating around the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab in the mid-’70s: “Anything you can do I can do meta.”
But wait! Before the column ends, I should note that meta also seems to be picking up steam as a noun. After the economist Paul Krugman faced off last week against Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul on Bloomberg Television, he followed up on his New York Times blog with “a bit of meta” explaining why he thinks such face-to-face debates are useless. I better leave it there, though. That may be about as much meta as readers can handle.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.