Where did the word ‘meta’ come from, and why is it suddenly the fashionable word to use, in class and casual conversation? Before this semester, I knew of ‘meta’ only as a prefix denoting change. Then, over the last two months, I have heard it from four or five distinct sources as an adjective in its own right. “That’s so meta!”
It sounded both vapid and pretentious, especially in that particular phrase, so I paid it little attention. Mostly, I was embarrassed I didn’t know what it meant. Soon, though, it was everywhere. Someone in my writing workshop yesterday described my piece as “meta,” and later that very same day, my oldest friend at Harvard used ‘meta’ in a quip about Oggi’s pizza.
I erupted. “When did you start using the word ‘meta’?!” He claims it has been a frequent and useful part of his vocabulary since his high school days. I was aghast, astonished.
It turns out that everyone knows what ‘meta’ means. It refers to a certain self-reference and self-awareness. Oxford English Dictionary online defines it as, “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.”
Consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying? OED has defined a Harvard student! Not only is ‘meta’ pretentious, it is also genuinely smart. Even better, it hits that perfect balance between arrogance and embarrassment that characterizes a desperately humble but hopelessly self-impressed Harvard student.
Small wonder, then, that ‘meta’ is suddenly the newest mot du jour. We may only be surprised that it has taken this long.
Bonus Material! “Mot du Jours I Have Known” by Allan
dusty (I’m not even sure what this one meant, but there was a period of about a week when my soccer team at prep school called everything ‘dusty.’ It even became fairly meta at one point, with one guy calling our jackets ‘dusty’ and another guy telling him that the word ‘dusty’ had really gone too far and was no longer fashionable.)
sketchy (This one is still around, of course, even spawning its own variants like ‘sketch’, but I remember being confused when it first made it big. ‘Sketchy’ used to mean trendy and fun, and this old meaning was the inspiration for the ‘Skechers’ brand of sneakers. Then ‘sketchy’ started meaning threatening and creepy, and someone at Skechers had a big moment of Whoops!)
gnarly (When my brother and I started using this word in late elementary school, my Dad quickly put a stop to it by telling us that it was first used by Iowa farm girls describing tractor equipment. I believed him for years.)