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Meta (from the Greek meta- μετά- meaning "after" or "beyond") is a prefix used in English to indicate a concept that is an abstraction behind another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

English language West Germanic language

English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and eventually became a global lingua franca. It is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Great Britain that later took their name, as England. Both names derive from Anglia, a peninsula in the Baltic Sea. The language is closely related to Frisian and Low Saxon, and its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse, and to a greater extent by Latin and French.

Abstraction in its main sense is a conceptual process where general rules and concepts are derived from the usage and classification of specific examples, literal signifiers, first principles, or other methods.


Original Greek meaning

In Greek, the prefix meta- is generally less esoteric than in English; Greek meta- is equivalent to the Latin words post- or ad-. The use of the prefix in this sense occurs occasionally in scientific English terms derived from Greek. For example: the term Metatheria (the name for the clade of marsupial mammals) uses the prefix meta- in the sense the Metatheria occur on the tree of life adjacent to the Theria (the placental mammals).

Metatheria subclass of mammals

Metatheria is a mammalian clade that includes all mammals more closely related to marsupials than to placentals. First proposed by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1880, it is a slightly more inclusive group than the marsupials; it contains all marsupials as well as many extinct non-marsupial relatives.

Clade A group of organisms that consists of a common ancestor and all its lineal descendants

A clade, also known as monophyletic group, is a group of organisms that consists of a common ancestor and all its lineal descendants, and represents a single "branch" on the "tree of life".

Marsupial Members of the mammalian infraclass Marsupialia. Well-known marsupials include kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, possums, opossums, wombats, and Tasmanian devils.

Marsupials are any members of the mammalian infraclass Marsupialia. All extant marsupials are endemic to Australasia and the Americas. A distinctive characteristic common to these species is that most of the young are carried in a pouch. Well-known marsupials include kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, possums, opossums, wombats, and Tasmanian devils. Some lesser-known marsupials are the dunnarts, potoroos and cuscuses. Marsupials represent the clade originating from the last common ancestor of extant metatherians. Like other mammals in the Metatheria, they give birth to relatively undeveloped young that often reside in a pouch located on their mothers’ abdomen for a certain amount of time. Close to 70% of the 334 extant species occur on the Australian continent. The remaining 100 are found in the Americas — primarily in South America, but thirteen in Central America, and one in North America, north of Mexico.


In epistemology, and often in common use, the prefix meta- is used to mean about (its own category). For example, metadata are data about data (who has produced them, when, what format the data are in and so on). In a database, metadata are also data about data stored in a data dictionary and describe information (data) about database tables such as the table name, table owner, details about columns, – essentially describing the table. Also, metamemory in psychology means an individual's knowledge about whether or not they would remember something if they concentrated on recalling it. The modern sense of "an X about X" has given rise to concepts like "meta-cognition" (i.e. cognition about cognition), "meta-emotion" (i.e. emotion about emotion), "meta-discussion" (i.e. discussion about discussion), "meta-joke" (i.e. joke about jokes), and "metaprogramming" (i.e. writing programs that manipulate programs).[ citation needed ]

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Metadata data about data

Metadata is "data [information] that provides information about other data". Many distinct types of metadata exist, among these descriptive metadata, structural metadata, administrative metadata, reference metadata and statistical metadata.

Metamemory or Socratic awareness, a type of metacognition, is both the introspective knowledge of one’s own memory capabilities and the processes involved in memory self-monitoring. This self-awareness of memory has important implications for how people learn and use memories. When studying, for example, students make judgements of whether they have successfully learned the assigned material and use these decisions, known as "judgments of learning", to allocate study time.

In a rule-based system, a metarule is a rule governing the application of other rules. [1]

In computer science, a rule-based system is used to store and manipulate knowledge to interpret information in a useful way. It is often used in artificial intelligence applications and research.

On higher level of abstraction

Any subject can be said to have a metatheory , a theoretical consideration of its properties, such as its foundations, methods, form and utility, on a higher level of abstraction. In linguistics, a grammar is considered as being expressed in a metalanguage, language operating on a higher level to describe properties of the plain language (and not itself).

A metatheory or meta-theory is a theory whose subject matter is some theory. All fields of research share some meta-theory, regardless whether this is explicit or correct. In a more restricted and specific sense, in mathematics and mathematical logic, metatheory means a mathematical theory about another mathematical theory.

Within economics the concept of utility is used to model worth or value, but its usage has evolved significantly over time. The term was introduced initially as a measure of pleasure or satisfaction within the theory of utilitarianism by moral philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. But the term has been adapted and reapplied within neoclassical economics, which dominates modern economic theory, as a utility function that represents a consumer's preference ordering over a choice set. As such, it is devoid of its original interpretation as a measurement of the pleasure or satisfaction obtained by the consumer from that choice.

Broadly, any metalanguage is language or symbols used when language itself is being discussed or examined. In logic and linguistics, a metalanguage is a language used to make statements about statements in another language. Expressions in a metalanguage are often distinguished from those in an object language by the use of italics, quotation marks, or writing on a separate line. The structure of sentences and phrases in a metalanguage can be described by a metasyntax.


The prefix comes from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-), from μετά, [2] which meant "after", "beside", "with", "among" (with respect to the preposition, some of these meanings were distinguished by case marking). Other meanings include "beyond", "adjacent" and "self", and it is also used in the form μητα- as a prefix in Greek, with variants μετ- before vowels and μεθ- "meth-" before aspirated vowels.

The earliest form of the word "meta" is the Mycenaean Greek me-ta, written in Linear B syllabic script. [3] The Greek preposition is cognate with the Old English preposition mid "with", still found as a prefix in midwife. Its use in English is the result of back-formation from the word "metaphysics". In origin Metaphysics was just the title of one of the principal works of Aristotle; it was so named (by Andronicus of Rhodes) because in the customary ordering of the works of Aristotle it was the book following Physics ; it thus meant nothing more than "[the book that comes] after [the book entitled] Physics". However, even Latin writers misinterpreted this as entailing metaphysics constituted "the science of what is beyond the physical". [4] Nonetheless, Aristotle's Metaphysics enunciates considerations of natures above physical realities, which one can examine through this particular part of philosophy, e.g., the existence of God. The use of the prefix was later extended to other contexts based on the understanding of metaphysics to mean "the science of what is beyond the physical".

Quine and Hofstadter

The Oxford English Dictionary cites uses of the meta- prefix as "beyond, about" (such as meta-economics and meta-philosophy) going back to 1917. However, these formations are parallel to the original "metaphysics" and "metaphysical", that is, as a prefix to general nouns (fields of study) or adjectives. Going by the OED citations, it began being used with specific nouns in connection with mathematical logic sometime before 1929. (In 1920 David Hilbert proposed a research project in what was called "metamathematics.")

A notable early citation is Quine's 1937 use of the word "metatheorem", [5] where meta- has the modern meaning of "an X about X". (Note earlier uses of "meta-economics" and even "metaphysics" do not have this doubled conceptual structure – they are about or beyond X but they do not themselves constitute an X).

Douglas Hofstadter, in his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach (and in the sequel, Metamagical Themas ), popularized this meaning of the term. The book, which deals with self-reference and strange loops, and touches on Quine and his work, was influential in many computer-related subcultures and may be responsible for the popularity of the prefix, for its use as a solo term, and for the many recent coinages which use it. [6] Hofstadter uses meta as a stand-alone word, as an adjective and as a directional preposition ("going meta," a term he coins for the old rhetorical trick of taking a debate or analysis to another level of abstraction, as when somebody says "This debate isn't going anywhere"). This book may also be responsible for the association of "meta" with strange loops, as opposed to just abstraction.[ citation needed ] The sentence "This sentence contains thirty-six letters," and the sentence which embeds it, are examples of "metasentences" referencing themselves in this way.

See also

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Self-reference sentence, idea or formula refers to itself

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Willard Van Orman Quine American philosopher and logician

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<i>Gödel, Escher, Bach</i> book by Douglas R. Hofstadter

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  1. Schild, Uri J.; Herzog, Shai (1993). The Use of Meta-rules in Rule Based Legal Computer Systems. Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law. ICAIL '93. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: ACM. pp. 100–109. doi:10.1145/158976.158989.
  2. μητά, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  3. "The Linear B word me-ta".
  4. "Metaphysics". Online Etymology Dictionary .
  5. Willard Van Orman Quine, "Logic Based on Inclusion and Abstraction", The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 145–152, December 1937
  6. Cohen, Noam (Sep 5, 1988). "Meta-Musings". The New Republic.