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.

  • 53
    Off topic - move to meta ? ;-)
    – mgb
    Nov 16, 2011 at 20:57
  • 19
    Note: a teenager is between the ages of thirteen and nineteen years old, inclusive.
    – Hugo
    Nov 16, 2011 at 21:13
  • 10
    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". Nov 16, 2011 at 21:16
  • 6
    See [this question][1] for a fuller explanation complete with demonstration. [1]: english.stackexchange.com/questions/48576/…
    – psr
    Nov 16, 2011 at 23:03
  • 11
    If he says "It's Mehta", it may mean he's into classical music.
    – JeffSahol
    Nov 17, 2011 at 14:25

8 Answers 8


Something is meta (and self referential) if it is about itself. (Strictly speaking, you can be meta by being about the thing's own category, rather than this specific individual thing, but the key is "about".) 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 arguing 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 https://english.meta.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.

  • 36
    YKMV = your kids may vary :)
    – Hugo
    Nov 16, 2011 at 21:17
  • 8
    That response was meta meta
    – ChrisM
    Nov 16, 2011 at 22:54
  • 24
    @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. Nov 16, 2011 at 23:39
  • 3
    I suppose all comments here are responses about responses, and are in that sense, meta. Nov 17, 2011 at 16:26
  • 17
    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. Dec 27, 2011 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.)

  • 4
    "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar..." - like -THAT- would never happen ... lol
    – Will
    Nov 16, 2011 at 22:39
  • 6
    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. May 9, 2014 at 10:19
  • 1
    A European and two other people that wish they were still Europeans walk into a bar. One of them says Clinton or Trump. What a joke. Oct 4, 2016 at 18:14

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.

  • 2
    Yes meta-data is data about data, like attributes, properties.
    – rds
    Nov 18, 2011 at 10:07
  • 3
    +1 for Urban Dictionary, the "stack exchange" of slang. ;)
    – Herbert
    Nov 28, 2011 at 5:26

"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.
  • 3
    "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, 2011 at 6:15

With all due respect to the previously accepted sophisticated answer, which is correct as far as the original English language is concerned but incorrect as the answer to this specific question, I strongly believe that the average 10-years-old has absolutely no idea what any of that is, in the answer, and is using the word in an evolved manner that has nothing to do with the original English language.

A 10-year-old, and even teenagers nowadays, most commonly use the word “meta” to describe something that's awesome or ... “uber”, which is perhaps an outdated synonym, or even “OP”, which is short for overpowered. OP, and even the word “broken”, originally referred to game skills/spells, game characters/heroes, which the gaming community believed to be incorrectly programmed (“broken”) in a way that made them overpowered, or so good that they imbalanced the game. However, as games started to become more and more actually balanced, and the gaming community also realized that they are as balanced as possible, the terms OP and broken weren't that accepted anymore. A new term had to be invented. Meta is that word.

Meta, for kids and teenagers, and even for adults involved in the gaming scene (video and computer games), is an acronym for “Most Effective Tactic Available”, and the term started in games and the gaming scene to refer to the best things, tactics, skills, or characters to use to win the game. However, as it became more and more commonly used, it moved from the gaming community to young people generally, and it is sometimes now used instead of “awesome” or “uber”. As desirable as it is to think that our kids and teenagers are using “self-referential” terms, I really believe that this is actually your right answer. Check it with your kid and many other kids. Meta is the new awesome.

In short, when a young person says “meta”, they mean “awesome”. And the term is an acronym for “Most Effective Tactic Available”.

  • This answer strikes me as the most likely interpretation if I were to hear the word from a teenager who likes video games. I disagree with the etymology, though. In the video game context "meta" comes from the term "metagaming", although the backronym you're quoting perfectly reflects what "meta" came to mean in the context of video games. This Reddit thread gives a decent explanation of the concept.
    – undercat
    Dec 15, 2018 at 3:44
  • I'm also not quite certain that "meta" always implies "awesome". I've seen plenty of people express disappointment at the current "game meta" because the most efficient way to get an edge over your opponents ("the current meta") may not always be perceived as the most fun or original one.
    – undercat
    Dec 15, 2018 at 3:44
  • Even if the teenager saying it isn't a gamer, they could've heard it enough from their peers, most of whom are likely gamers in today's world and age, until it just started to sound natural as a synonym for awesome or best current thing.
    – Rok
    Dec 15, 2018 at 4:57
  • Regarding metagaming, I can say that I've been gaming since roughly 1990, and I've never, ever heard of "metagaming" before you linked it now. I understand the concept, and a good example of it is the World of Warcraft Iron Man challenge, but as I said, I never heard of the term before. More importantly, "metagaming" and "meta" within a gaming context are not the same word and do not have any relationship with each other. The former is a portmanteau to define a new phenomenon or concept in the gaming scene, and the latter is a (b)acronym to define the most effective way of playing.
    – Rok
    Dec 15, 2018 at 5:07
  • Accordingly, the etymologies of both words, metagaming and meta, cannot be interdependent or similar. Meta, if it's a backronym, could've been inspired by metagaming, but that doesn't mean that meta's etymology would be traced to metagaming etymology; the words really have absolutely nothing to do with each other beyond the phonetics and the commonality of the subject of gaming.
    – Rok
    Dec 15, 2018 at 5:12

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.

  • 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, 2011 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. Nov 17, 2011 at 15:12

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!"
  • could you give an example that demonstrates this use to mean abstract? Nov 17, 2011 at 12:50
  • 1
    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. Nov 17, 2011 at 15:02
  • 2
    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? Nov 17, 2011 at 15:38
  • 2
    @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. Nov 21, 2011 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. Aug 31, 2012 at 17:33

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.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.