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Meta Data

Self, meet yourself
February 8, 2010

Lady Gaga and Elton John, two of the music world’s most self-referential and self-aware performers, sang a duet at the Grammy Awards in a setting that made many references to Hollywood, fame, and each other. “It was a typically meta statement by Lady Gaga about her travails through the machinery of ‘the fame factory,’ as the stage set proclaimed,” one reviewer wrote. “‘How wonderful life is with Gaga in the world,’ John sang.”

A “meta” statement?

For those not tuned in to Twitter, Facebook, or ultrahip blogs, that may not make any sense. We’re used to seeing “meta” as a prefix, as in “metaphysics,” the philosophical study of the nature of being, or in “metatarsals,” the long bones in the middle of your feet. If you happen to be an archaeologist, you might know “meta” as the column that marks the beginning, end, or turn in a race in a Roman arena. And you might have a vague sense that “meta” as a prefix means “bigger.”

But used alone, as in the reference to Lady Gaga’s performance, “meta” has a related but different meaning: Self-referential, or self-parodic, using the characteristics you want to parody. And, though it’s slang, it’s starting to show up a lot.

Here’s an example from the usually stodgy Oxford English Dictionary, quoting a 1993 Boston Globe article on “meta”: “[W]hen anchorwoman Connie Chung made a guest appearance on the sitcom Murphy Brown to advise anchorwoman Murphy not to sacrifice her journalistic integrity by making a guest appearance on a sitcom, that was just plain meta.”

Here’s another, from

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“So I just saw this film about these people making a movie, and the movie they were making was about the film industry …”

“Dude, that’s so meta. Stop before my brain explodes.”

The OED traces that use of “meta” to 1988, which makes it older than one use that is popular online: “metadata,” often shortened to “meta.” “Metadata” is data that provides information about other data, often obtained through “meta tags,” or embedded code or keywords that provide search engines with information about the page. (Some spellings use “meta” with a hyphen, some as two words, and some mash it with another word.)

“Meta,” of course, is Latin, and “meta” as a prefix can be found in scientific usage to mean “before,” “after,” “behind,” “between,” “above,” “beyond,” or “transcendent.” In other words, “meta” is all around, so having it twist back on itself in a “meta” situation is not such a long trip to make.

If this column then went on to talk about how “meta” it was to describe the uses of “meta,” that would really be “meta,” or maybe just too metaphorical.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.