“Meta” is not only a Greek word that is overused in technology; it’s now also the word chosen by Mark Zuckerberg, in his attempt to rebrand Facebook’s bruised image. The word is used in speaking about internet data (“metadata”) and in numerous sci-fi movies and series (meta-humans).
But it is, fundamentally, an ancient Greek word, which has “survived” also in modern Greek. The ancient Greek meaning of the word is “beyond,” “after,” or “behind.” The “beyond” sense of meta still lingers in words like metaphysics or meta-economy.
However, that’s still not the “meta” most of us come across today. One of the more popular uses of meta today is for the meaning best described by the formula “meta-X equals X about X.”
So, if we take the word “data” for our X, and add the prefix meta- to it, we get metadata, or “data about data.” A meta-text is a text about texts, meta-cognition is thinking about thinking, and a meta-joke is a joke about jokes.
The self-reflection sense of meta has also given rise to the use of the word as a standalone adjective. For instance, meta is used to describe something that’s self-reflective or self-referencing.
Greek word meta, popular in art
The self-referencing sense of meta seems especially popular in art. In its simplest form, a book in which a character is writing a book or a movie in which a character is making a movie can be described as meta.
Some works are more meta than others. The movie Birdman, for example, is a movie about an actor who played a superhero in a movie, who now tries to rekindle his career in theater. That actor is played by an actor who really did play a superhero in a movie. He is now trying to rekindle his career in a movie that looks more like a play than a movie.
When characters in a work of fiction act as if they are aware that they are in a work of fiction, this technique is called meta-referencing. It is often employed in meta-fiction, a work of fiction in which the author breaks with conventions in order to show that the work is, in fact, fiction.
In the world of gaming, meta is used in two ways. Meta can be used as an acronym for “most effective tactics available.” Calling something “meta” means that it’s an effective way to achieve the goal of the game, whether it’s to beat other players or beat the game itself.
Meta can also be short for meta-game. It is using information about the game, derived from the world beyond the game or its rules, to influence the outcome of the game, or gain a competitive edge.
Also, meta-memory in psychology means an individual’s knowledge about whether or not they would remember something if they concentrated on recalling it.
Meta in Greek, borrowed in English
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- in the sense the Metatheria occur on the tree of life adjacent to the Theria (the placental mammals).
The earliest 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, because in the customary ordering of the works of Aristotle it was the book following Physics.
Many Greek words with the meta prefix are also included in the English vocabulary, most of them about medicine. Among them, metamorphosis, metaphysics, metabolism, metathesis, metastasis, metaphoric, metallography, and many more.
Finally, in the DC Comics Universe, a meta-human is a human with superpowers. The term is roughly synonymous with both mutant and mutate in the Marvel Universe. It also means post-human in the Wildstorm and Ultimate Marvel Universes. So the term is included in all movie and TV versions of the comic books.