Meta is a very commonly-used term meaning self-referential.

Oxford defines it as:

(Of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential:

the enterprise is inherently ‘meta’, since it doesn’t review movies, for example, it reviews the reviewers who review movies

But the 'origin' section of the entry redirects here, and there's no apparant link with self-reference. It's not much help, apart from stating the usage started from the '80s.

Etymonline has an entry for the meta- prefix, but not meta the adjective.

Does anyone know exactly when and how meta came to mean self-referential?

  • 4
    "Going beyond" or "rising above", so that one make get a perspective from the outside seems like a pretty straightforward evolution to me. It was certainly used before the 80s; I first encountered it in Gödel, Escher, Bach, which was written in the late 70s (79?), IIRC.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 17:51
  • @DanBron: Interesting take, but by that definition, a "Making-of" documentary would be a meta-movie too. Instead of the current restriction on the sense that a work must reference itself from within
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 17:54
  • 3
    Oh no, no, a documentary is a meta movie, no question about it. Any "rising above" is meta. When works do it about themselves, that of course is meta as well: the specific kind of meta which is self-referential (what Hostadter calls a Strange Loop. BTW, do you know what Hofstadter's motto is? "I'm So Meta, Even This Acronym")
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 17:58
  • 3
    @DanBron: Haha. "I'm So Meta, Even This Acronym": IS-META
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 18:00
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    Meta, as self-referential feedback, can also be seen as cybernetic. The word derives from the Greek word kybernētēs meaning helmsman, pilot, and governor. Cyberneticians assume that things which act as autonomous units of adaptive behaviour, be they molecules, humans, machines or web sites, do so because they possess a control mechanism. The control mechanism, together with what it actually controls, are best regarded as constituting a system. Since a control mechanism is an integral part of a system, it is very difficult to study the one without the other. Meta is our control mechanism.
    – user98990
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 19:06

1 Answer 1


It originally meant something like "after". Possibly the most prominent use of this sense is the title of Aristotle's Metaphysics, so called because it constitutes those things which are to be studied after one has learned physics.

This text wound up founding the discipline which we today call "metaphysics", and one way to describe what this subject encompasses is that it covers things at a level of abstraction above physics.

This sort of meaning became applied retroactively to the prefix, and we began building words in that sense, often by applying the root word to itself. Take for example metaknowledge, knowledge at a higher level of abstraction than standard knowledge, or knowledge about knowledge. Eventually, this reflexive sense became a new usage in its own right.

  • 2
    @Area51DetectiveFiction It's more than a useful answer, it is the answer. Check out what Etymonline has to say: "Third sense, 'higher than, transcending, overarching, dealing with the most fundamental matters of'" is due to misinterpretation of metaphysics as 'science of that which transcends the physical'" This has led to a prodigious erroneous extension in modern usage, with meta- affixed to the names of other sciences and disciplines, especially in the academic jargon of literary criticism.".
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 18:13
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    Finally, in this question I have found a justification for the hours I have spent studying classical philosophy Commented May 10, 2015 at 18:31
  • 3
    @Malnormalulo: Every human being gets justification for reading philosophy the moment they are born. Pity so few of them actually do it.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 19:09
  • 2
    To expand on the Aristotle bit: Aristotle first wrote "Physics" and then another, untitled, book, on a subject we would today call "metaphysics". When it was published centuries later the publisher obviously couldn't contact Aristotle but needed a title. Since the Ancient Greek word for "after" is "μετα" (= meta) and it was the book after "φυσικη" (= physics) he simply called it "μετά φυσικη" (= meta fysikē), "after physics".
    – 11684
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 20:38
  • 1
    @11684: We are lucky that it was Aristotle (or at least his publisher) coining the usage. Imagine it would come up today. Metaphysics would then be called "Physics - The sequel"
    – skymningen
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 7:34

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