Ask Ivanhoe is a regular column in The AS Review in which our resident expert on everything, Ivanhoe, answers readers\u2019 questions. Have a conundrum, dilemma or other inquiry? Ask Ivanhoe by e-mailing your question to as.review@wwu.edu and finally get your question answered. Photo by Erik Simkins.

Ask Ivanhoe is a regular column in The AS Review in which our resident expert on everything, Ivanhoe, answers readers\u2019 questions. Have a conundrum, dilemma or other inquiry? Ask Ivanhoe by e-mailing your question to as.review@wwu.edu and finally get your question answered. Photo by Erik Simkins.

By Ivanhoe/The AS Review

Dear Ivanhoe,
What does it mean to be “meta”?
— Anonymous Writer
Dear Anonymous Writer,

Meta originally entered the English language as a prefix in words like metaphysic, at least as early as the 14th century. As a prefix, it carries many meanings, denoting transformation to another state (metavolcanic), a higher level of being (metaphysics), a posterior position in anatomy (metabranchial), a relationship between chemicals or minerals (metaphosphate) or coming after something or at a late stage in biological senses (meta-arthritic).

It comes to English via Latin loanwords borrowed from the ancient Greek preposition μετά, meaning “with,” “after” or “between,” which has its root in prehistoric Indo-European languages, from which the German mit (“with”) and Albanian mjet (“among”) also derive.

As an independent adjective, meta appears twice in English, and much more recently. In the 19th century, chemists began using the word to describe a way in which carbon atoms attach to substituent groups in a benzene ring.

None of these definitions, I suspect, answer your question, but I must confess that I am enjoying reading the dictionary.

The second appearance of meta as an adjective comes in print as late as 1988, probably in the figurative usage of the biological prefix meaning “coming after.” According to a draft entry added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2008, it is a word “designating or characterized by a consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying style, whereby something (as a situation, person, etc.) reflects or represents the very characteristics it alludes to or depicts.”

In simpler terms, to be meta is to acknowledge self-awareness within a given context. In literature and the arts it is essentially a subset of irony.

A 1993 article in the Boston Globe provides a good example of this use:

When anchorwoman Connie Chung made a guest appearance on 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.

As being ironic does not necessitate intentional humor or circumstance, neither does being meta, as in this example from Vanity Fair in 1999:

An enterprise such as “Brill’s Content” is inherently ‘meta,’ since it doesn’t review movies, for example, it reviews the reviewers who review movies.

The word can also be used as a noun, providing a name for this sort of irony, as the Boston Globe did:

I can talk about a trendy example of meta: “The Player”—a movie about movies, a movie about movie-making.

Note that autobiographies and self-portraits are not automatically meta because their creators comment on themselves. It is the manner of comment that matters. They could be meta if an author writes a book about what it was like writing that book or if a painter paints a painting of oneself painting that painting.

The use of meta in popular culture has become increasingly popular in recent years. For excellent recent examples of meta I recommend taking a look at the film “Adaptation,” the novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” or the DVD cover of “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!”

Indeed, this very article is meta in that it uses the word ‘meta’ to describe itself, quoting itself to provide an example of the word’s use, while being an article about what it means to be meta, as in the following passage:

Indeed, this very article is meta in that it uses the word ‘meta’ to describe itself, quoting itself to provide an example of the word’s use, while being an article about what it means to be meta, as in the following passage:

Indeed, this very article is meta in that it uses the word ‘meta’ to describe itself, quoting itself to provide an example of the word’s use, while being an article about what it means to be meta, as in the following passage:

Indeed, this very article is meta in that it uses the word ‘meta’ to describe itself, quoting itself to provide an example of the word’s use, while being an article about what it means to be meta, as in the following passage:

Indeed, this very article is meta in that it uses the word ‘meta’ to describe itself, quoting itself to provide an example of the word’s use, while being an article about what it means to be meta, as in the following passage: