Maureen Dowd wrote a review on the recently released movie, “J.Edgar” directed by Clint Eastwood in New York Times November 12 issue under the title, “Dirty Harry meets dirtier Edgar.” Apart from the interest in weird relationship of the FBI’s ‘fearful enforcer’ Edgar Hoover and his protégé, Clyde Tolson, I was caught up with the short phrase, “It’s sorta meta,” in the following sentence:

Some F.B.I. agents who worked with Hoover have been grousing that portraying the feared first director of the F.B.I. as homosexual would “turn Dirty Harry into Dirty Harriet,” as William Branon, chairman of the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, put it.

It’s sorta meta: the star who played a fictional law enforcement officer breaking rules for what he sees as the good of society makes a movie about a real law enforcement officer breaking rules for what he sees as the good of society.

Dowd’s articles are always ordeal to me because of inclusion of a lot of unfamiliar words to me and her own style of elocution.

I guess “sorta” means simply “a sort of,” but I don’t understand what “It’s sorta meta” means here. It’s a short phrase, but “meta” is an evasive word for me. I’m not even clear with what “meta user” shown on my page of EL&U page means. Would you explain me?

  • 5
    Suggested reading: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Hofstadter
    – nico
    Nov 13, 2011 at 12:52
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    BTW, "the star who played a fictional law enforcement officer breaking rules for what he sees as the good of society" refers to Clint Eastwood, who played Dirty Harry. And "a real law enforcement officer breaking rules for what he sees as the good of society" refers to J. Edgar Hoover. Now, Clint Eastwood is making a movie about J. Edgar Hoover. This could be better described as co-incidental or apt (or ironic depending on what one thinks of it), but the author has instead chosen "sorta meta" to say that it is "meta" without committing to it. Nov 13, 2011 at 16:38
  • possible duplicate of Meaning of "meta-"
    – aedia λ
    Nov 14, 2011 at 16:01
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    Don't feel bad...Maureen Dowd's articles are an ordeal for native English speakers too.
    – JW01
    Nov 15, 2011 at 1:06
  • I never metaphor I didn't like!
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 10, 2020 at 2:14

7 Answers 7


The prefix meta- is used predominantly in scientific contexts, but it has been extended to other areas when it is, in the OED’s words:

Prefixed to the name of a subject or discipline to denote another which deals with ulterior issues in the same field, or which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline and its methods, procedures, and assumptions.

Thus metalanguage, for example, is the language used to talk about language. The prefix does, however, appear on its own. The meta section of EL&U deals with issues about EL&U and a meta user is one who uses those pages. Maureen Dowd’s use of it seems to me to be unnecessarily modish. She might have done better to have said self-referential.

  • @Barrier England. Not only to the above question, I’ve seen the word, “self reference (or referential)” in the answers to my past questions several times, but I’m not clear with its meaning. I drew down the article of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Self-reference” ( first published July 15, 2008)” that amounts 30 pages full of logistic symbols such as <(λ → ¬K<λ>) → ¬ K<λ>>, ⊢∃xBew(x, <φ>), and ⊢T(<φ>) ↔ φ, which I feel hopeless to understand. Can you paraphrase what “It’s meta” is self-referential” in plain words? Nov 14, 2011 at 20:35
  • @YoichiOishi - I have heard this use, mainly from those in the arts, in similar contexts. Meta seems to mean "metaphorical" but also with a hint of "metaphysics" or the idea of reducing things to theoretical concepts - thus using the concepts to create the metaphor.
    – Greybeard
    Jun 15, 2020 at 17:08

What it means in this instance is "it isn't meta at all."

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. It is not a term which can be applied formally, in the sense that meta can be applied as a prefix, as in "metadata" or "metaphysics". Dowd is trying to be hip by using a term that the youngsters would use. Unfortunately, she's getting it wrong. It is like when the kids use "literally" to mean "figuratively".

What Dowd is actually trying to say is that there is a parallel between an actor and a character that this actor has played. Two things being similar to one another does not make them "meta".

  • +1, but 'literally' has been used at least since 1769 'to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense' (OED) Nov 13, 2011 at 12:48
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    @BarrieEngland -- well, after 250 years, it's high time we stopped. Nov 13, 2011 at 19:58
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    @BarrieEngland -- because, like "irregardless" and "could care less", the usage doesn't make any sense. "Literally" is the antonym of "figuratively". If we use it to mean "figuratively but very", then there's a hole in our vocabulary: what word will we have to mean what "literally" means now? Nov 14, 2011 at 7:31
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    @Malvolio: Words don't exist in isolation. It's almost always clear from the context which of several possible meanings is intended. As it happens, depending on context, there are plenty of alternatives to ‘literally’ if we really need them. To insist on ‘literally’ meaning the opposite of ‘figuratively’, and nothing else, is to fall prey to the etymological fallacy just as much as it would be to insist on using 'nice' to mean ‘absurd, senseless’, as it once did. Nov 14, 2011 at 8:56
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    @Malvolio: It's easy enough to make up sentences to prove a point, but we can only draw sensible conclusions from authentic examples. I repeat that context, the social as well as the linguistic context, is all. Most of the time we understand each other perfectly well, and as Pam Peters says in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ ‘. . . it seems odd to censure the word on the basis of its less responsible users.’ It would be interesting to pursue the discussion, but to do so here might be taken as abuse. Nov 14, 2011 at 20:19

This question is very difficult because meta means a whole lot in different contexts. It is a pretty nuanced idea and very interesting.

In short, meta generally just means "self-referential." Something that references itself is meta; If a character in a TV show says how much his life is like TV, he is "being meta".

Dowd's description of something meta is only sort-of kind-of a-little-bit meta. It's more about someone writing what they have experience with.

This word, "meta" is a vaguely casual bit of language that comes from the PREFIX meta, in words such as metaphilosophy, metaphysics, metadata, and metalanguage. It is hard to define this in a way that doesn't make sense unless you already know what it means, so I'll just say: applying the prefix of meta to something means "the study or examination of the thing as a whole."

For example, metaphysics is the philosophy of philosophy. Metadata is data about data. Metalangauge is language for discussing language.

On this website, "meta stack overflow" is a sub-forum where one discusses stack overflow itself. It's a forum about the forums.

It doesn't really mean much of anything; you can just sort of apply it whenever you want to indicate something references itself.

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    But for the first clause of the final sentence, I'm pretty much with you.
    – user13141
    Nov 13, 2011 at 12:36
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    "Meta" in the usual hacker sense means "higher level" rather than "self-referential". Thus a methatheorem is a theorem about theorems, rather than a theorem that refers to itself. (Your examples in the answer illustrate this.) Nov 13, 2011 at 16:34

Most of the time when someone says meta, it means talking about the thing that talks about the thing. So meta.english.stackexchange.com talks about the site talking about English. Metadata is data that describes data. In the context of the article, when he says "it's sorta meta" he means that "In an odd way (sorta) when talking about the movie..." It doesn't help that the writer doesn't use great English. But the point he's getting at. Is that when talking about the movie itself (not the contents of the movie), Leo Dicaprio played this role before as a fictional character (possibly referring to his role in The Departed).

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    Just FYI - the writer is Maureen Dowd, a "she" not a "he".
    – MT_Head
    Nov 14, 2011 at 1:14

Other answerers have fully addressed "meta", but I'd like to clarify "sorta". It doesn't mean "a sort of", it just means "sort of". It's an adverbial. Its purpose is to weaken a statement; "sorta ..." means roughly "somewhat ...", or "partly ...", or "... in a way", or "arguably ...". A synonym is "kinda" (="kind of"). Both are very colloquial, and very vague; I wouldn't recommend them in most writing. (See http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/sortof.html.)


In this case, meta is used to refer to the context and culture surrounding the movie, rather than anything directly portrayed in the movie itself. The director, Clint Eastwood, had previously portrayed a law enforcement officer in the movie Dirty Harry. Similar to J. Edgar Hoover, Clint Eastwood's character broke the law for what he saw as the good of society, only P.I. Harry Callahan was a fictional character.

One requires knowledge about the people involved in making the movie, explicitly from outside the context of the movie's plot, to understand this reference, and that's why it's called meta.

Whether or not this is proper usage of the term can be argued. As to this particular instance, I find the comparison a bit of a stretch (the secretive first director of the FBI compared to a practically vigilante PI).


esp. @MikeBrown; @JoelBrown; Ms Dowd was indeed using meta in the sense explained by Barrie England: "a fictional law enforcement officer breaking rules for what he sees as the good of society" goes on to "...real law enforcement officer breaking rules for what he sees as the good of society".

However, I don't feel self-referential is appropriate here. It's quite different, as the above discussion shows. Modish or not, it seems to be precisely the word that conveys the sense.

  • I wasn't disagreeing with Barrie. I actually think my answer was posted before and we are saying the same thing. My fault on not realizing the writer was a woman however. Generally, I find that women are more precise with their words especially written words so I assumed from the writing that it was a man. Nov 14, 2011 at 15:59
  • I stand corrected: "...using meta in the sense explained by MikeBrown and BarrieEngland:...". Hope that sets the record straight.
    – Kris
    Nov 15, 2011 at 5:56

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