The word ‘meta’ has its origins in the ancient Greek language, where it means ‘beyond’ or ‘after’. However, today its usage has transcended these original meanings to evolve into a frequently used term across various domains from philosophy and mathematics to literature and computer science. The fundamental connotation remains linked to its original meaning, implying something that is ‘beyond’, ‘above’, ‘transcending’ or ‘self-referential’.
In modern parlance, ‘meta’ is often used to refer to a concept that is an abstraction of another concept. This implies a form of self-reference or an issue that self-contained and refers to itself. This can be observed in its use in academics, more specifically in philosophy. For instance, metaphysics is the philosophy of understanding phenomena that are beyond the physical world. Metaethics, another branch of philosophy, examines the nature and status of moral statements and judgments, effectively going beyond the mere practice of ethics to studying ethics itself.
Another field where ‘meta’ is extensively used is in mathematics, where metatheorems are theorems about other theorems, again representing self-reference. Similarly, metadata in computer science refers to data about other data. For instance, the size, format or creation date of a computer file are considered as metadata.
In a more colloquial or informal context, the use of ‘meta’ has become increasingly popular in contemporary culture. It is often used to describe something that consciously references or comments on its own subject matter or genre. A movie or a TV show can be described as ‘meta’ when it self-referentially acknowledges its own existence as a movie or show, or comments on its own medium. For example, when a character in a film breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, this can be considered a ‘meta’ moment.
The surge in discussions around ‘metagaming’ in the video gaming community also reflects this concept. Metagaming refers to game strategies that transcend the basic rules and mechanics of the game and come into play by considering factors outside the game itself, like the behaviours or tendencies of other players.
In summary, the term ‘meta’ bears different connotations depending on the context it is used in but fundamentally it signifies something beyond the basic or initial level, that is self-referential or refers to itself. It’s a concept that goes beyond simply acknowledging something to studying, understanding, or referencing it in a self-aware way. As culture and technology continue to evolve, the term ‘meta’ is likely to gain even wider currency and nuances in its usage.