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I asked about the meaning and usage of meta a few days ago, quoting Maureen Dowd’s review of the movie, “J. Edgar” in New York Times.

I received six answers. But I still don’t get a clear idea of what “It’s meta” means because I don't understand (or have a total inability to comprehend) the concept of “self-referential.”

An answerer answered: “Meta in this fairly recent, casual context is supposed to mean self-referential, or recursive in some way. This is the sense in which my teenagers would use this term.”

So let me resubmit the question on “meta” in simpler format. When your teenager boy says “It’s (or this is) meta,” what does it mean? In what situation and of what sort of object they use this phrase?

I’m sorry for many users who lent me kind answers to my previous question. But I would like to get it fully on the meaning and usage of “it’s meta,” as a colloquial expression, not the meaning of meta as a prefix.

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Off topic - move to meta ? ;-) –  mgb Nov 16 '11 at 20:57
Note: a teenager is between the ages of thir*teen* and nine*teen* years old, inclusive. –  Hugo Nov 16 '11 at 21:13
It's a new and not yet widespread slang usage. So OP shouldn't get too hung up on the exact definition, since it's not fully crystalised. The "self-referential" meaning presumably arose from the metadata beloved of techies, but this is also a typical usage, where it simply means "ironic". –  FumbleFingers Nov 16 '11 at 21:16
See [this question][1] for a fuller explanation complete with demonstration. [1]: english.stackexchange.com/questions/48576/… –  psr Nov 16 '11 at 23:03
If he says "It's Mehta", it may mean he's into classical music. –  JeffSahol Nov 17 '11 at 14:25

7 Answers 7

up vote 87 down vote accepted

Something is meta (and self referential) if it is about itself. If you substitute the word "about" where you see meta in a sentence longer than "it's meta", you will get close to the meaning, even though the sentence you make won't necessarily be grammatically correct. Some examples of meta things:

  • in a meeting, time spent discussing the meeting itself - how long it will last, who will talk first, whether everyone can see the screen - is meta. It's about the meeting, rather than being about the topic the meeting is supposed to be about.
  • when a married couple is arguing about a decision (where to spend Christmas, let's say) and one of them says "you always interrupt me" or "don't yell" the argument has turned meta. They're arguing about the argument now, not about Christmas plans.
  • when a character in a TV show says to another character "this isn't a movie, this is real life" it's a little meta too, because of course it isn't real life, and by saying this, talking about their situation, they've brought up their own fictionality to you.
  • there are also books about writing a book, plays about being in a play, movies about making movies, and so on. Meta doesn't just apply to a conversation, a meeting, or an argument. In fact, the name of http://meta.english.stackexchange.com/ should make sense now - it's for questions and answers about questions and answers :-)

In my experience, Kids These Days call things meta if they are truly meta (arguing about the argument), or off topic, or just not what they wanted to talk about. Some of them love the self-referential thrill of meta (my youngest once used the new label maker we bought to make a label that said label maker and stuck it onto the label maker with delight), but most don't and think it's something to be avoided. Your kids may vary.

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YKMV = your kids may vary :) –  Hugo Nov 16 '11 at 21:17
That response was meta meta –  ChrisM Nov 16 '11 at 22:54
@ChrisM. Incidentally, in Japanese, meta meta (めためた) phonetically means "get confused," or "in chaos"! I never mean the response was meta meta though. –  Yoichi Oishi Nov 16 '11 at 23:39
I suppose all comments here are responses about responses, and are in that sense, meta. –  Nathan Long Nov 17 '11 at 16:26
I disagree with the first sentence (as I've done before). "Meta" means "higher level" (or roughly "discussion in form X talking about the form X itself"), not "self-referential". Your examples actually illustrate this. Arguing about arguments, fictional characters talking about fictional characters, and books about books are examples of "meta", but not necessarily of self-reference. A book is self-referential only if it talks specifically about itself. A metatheorem is a theorem about theorems; a self-referential theorem talks about itself. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 27 '11 at 7:24

The current colloquial use of meta is a bit hard to pin down with a definition — it doesn’t entirely fit the concept of self-reference. It’s probably better illustrated by a couple of examples. There are lots of old jokes that begin:

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…

and go on to tell some story where the three people each do something (order a sandwich, perhaps) and behave in stereotyped ways (the Englishman snobbish, the Scot stingy, the Irishman stupid). These are simple jokes: jokes about certain national stereotypes.

But there’s also the joke:

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. The barman says “Is this some kind of joke?”

This joke is meta. The humour comes from the barman recognising that he’s in a situation typical of jokes. It isn’t a joke about national stereotypes; it’s a joke about jokes.

Similarly, english.stackexchange.com is a Q&A site for discussing English; meta.english.stackexchange.com is a Q&A site for discussing a Q&A site for discussing English.

(I can’t speak for 10-year-olds; I’m a bit out of touch with current playground slang. But this is how it’s used in current internet slang, and the way a 10-year-old is using it will probably be reasonably closely derived from that.)

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"An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar..." - like -THAT- would never happen ... lol –  Will Nov 16 '11 at 22:39
Three people of different nationalities walk into a bar. Two of them say something smart, and the third one makes a mockery of his fellow countrymen by acting stupid. –  starsplusplus May 9 at 10:19

Meta as a prefix can be thought of as one level of abstraction higher: metadata is data about the main data.

If we're talking about digital photos, the data is the photograph itself, and metadata is extra information about the picture data, such as the time the photo was taken, whether the flash was used, orientation, camera make and model, GPS location, etc.

Now, the slang non-prefix word isn't so different. Urban Dictionary is full of slang (and be warned, a lot of swearwords) that's been defined by "the kids", and voted on a bit like here. Their top definition for meta is:

A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.
"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."

So this is similarly one level of abstraction up, something about something else.

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Yes meta-data is data about data, like attributes, properties. –  rds Nov 18 '11 at 10:07
+1 for Urban Dictionary, the "stack exchange" of slang. ;) –  Herbert Nov 28 '11 at 5:26

Meta is, as best as I can describe it, data about data.

So if the data you are concerned with is say, the name of a person, any additional data related to that data is meta-data.

Main Data: Person's name.
Meta Data: Origin of name.
Meta Data: Name meaning.
Meta Data: Derivations of name.

In more colloquial use, as your son uses it, it somewhat loses its definition. Basically you are referencing a subject with the same subject.

A book about a book would be said to be meta.

Playing a racing game on a smartphone while you're in a car would be said to be meta.

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Playing a racing game on your smartphone while in a car race might be meta, though even that's a stretch. As a passenger in a regular car on a regular road, it's just normal behavior for a teenager, nothing meta about it. –  Marthaª Nov 17 '11 at 0:03
I don't know how this answers the question as it pertains to teenagers very well. If your kid plays Magic: The Gathering (replace with Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh, whatever game your kids play), their success in a round depends on how they know the game. If they're good, they might decide to go to a tournament. Once there, if the teenager figures out what strategies are prevalent and changes their deck to accomodate to the most popular kinds of opponents they will be facing, they're playing the meta-game. The term meta is popular in this context. –  Joshua Shane Liberman Nov 17 '11 at 15:12

"This is the reference implementation of the self-referential joke."

Title text: ""This is the reference implementation of the self-referential joke.""


The source of this answer contains three links to http://xkcd.com/917/: this one, the one before, and the one before the one before the latter one mentioned in this sentence.


Another picture worth a thousand words:

The contents of any one panel are dependent on the contents of every panel including itself. The graph of panel dependencies is complete and bidirectional, and each node has a loop. The mouseover text has two hundred and forty-two characters.

Title text: "The contents of any one panel are dependent on the contents of every panel including itself. The graph of panel dependencies is complete and bidirectional, and each node has a loop. The mouseover text has two hundred and forty-two characters."

Basically, for something to be 'meta' in [common] usage, it must satisfy at least one of the following conditions:

  • It is self referential.
  • It is recursive.
  • It is about something.
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"community": folks, none of the above things are likely to have been on the 10yo's mind when he innocently uttered 'meta'. –  Kris Dec 6 '11 at 6:15

My strongest guess is that the little one means the kind of state OP is now in. OP, your predicament is meta, by that logic of slang.

What meta means is meta to the OP.

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As already stated, meta is "something that references something of the same type", e.g. metaliterature is literature about literature, metadiscussion is a discussion about a discussion.

In terms of teenagers, it is often an equivalent for "abstract". By defining it as "meta", teenagers want to express that you should come to the point and don't circle around what you really want to say. I.e. you should be concrete.

For example:

  • Person: "He just lost a vuluable asset with regard to his travelling efforts".
  • Teenager: "Wow wow, too meta dude!"
  • Person: "I mean: His bike got stolen!"
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could you give an example that demonstrates this use to mean abstract? –  Matt Эллен Nov 17 '11 at 12:50
I don't know if I agree with the second statement. Abstract means simplify, similar to how abstract art is composed of simple shapes and colors. I don't see why teenagers would associate those two words any more than other demographics. –  Joshua Shane Liberman Nov 17 '11 at 15:02
Abstract is not to 'simplify', but refers to 'any object' satisfying certain properties without referring to concrete existence of those objects. Often, meta is abstract. Teenagers might not understand the full meaning of 'meta' and instead think it simply refers to abstract? –  Willem Mulder Nov 17 '11 at 15:38
@Willem Mulder. Your "stolen bike" conversation seemed to me one of the clearest examples of ten-year boys's "It's meta" reference that I could get the idea of the phrase. –  Yoichi Oishi Nov 21 '11 at 9:20
Continuing in the vein @JoshuaShaneLiberman started, I don't think it's correct to call the incorrect usage mentioned above a teenager's "definition". There are probably many people that use "meta" incorrectly and inconsistently. –  Chan-Ho Suh Aug 31 '12 at 17:33

protected by RegDwigнt Nov 17 '11 at 13:02

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