Language · On my radio · Word of the week

Word of the week: meta

It’s at least 12 years since I first heard something described as “meta”. The meaning was not entirely clear. The word comes up occasionally, and although I had an idea of what it means, until now I had never looked it up or used it myself.

Last month Kate Nash used the word “meta” during an interview on BBC Radio 2. She was one of the guests when Angela Scanlon was sitting in for Dermot O’Leary on his Saturday Breakfast Show. You might remember Kate Nash from the second half of the last decade, a singer-songwriter who reached #2 with a song called “Foundations”. Her more recent career was unknown to me. She explained during the interview that she had acted at school (the famous BRIT School in South London, whose alumni include Adele, Jessie J and Leona Lewis). She applied for places at university and drama school (including Bristol Old Vic) but was not accepted by any of them, so her performing career began as a singer and songwriter. Now she has established herself as an actress, and appears in the Netflix drama “GLOW” (“Glamorous Ladies of Wrestling”). Previous episodes of the show had passed me by. If you’re quick you can catch the Radio 2 interview here, at 1:05:42. (It’s available on the iPlayer for a few more days.) She tells us that the Netflix drama is based on real events from the 1980s, the first group of women wrestlers on TV, “a group of total freaks … misfits … not quite getting what they want out of life”. She continues:

“They want to be on TV and they want to make this work, so they end up making this wrestling show … which is kind of real as well … It’s like weirdly meta, the show.” defines this use of the word as “pertaining to or noting a story, conversation, character, etc., that consciously references or comments upon its own subject or features, often in the form of parody”. Until the late 1990s at least, “meta” was only used as a prefix. It was not defined as a word in its own right. I have just checked our “Official Scrabble Words” (published by Chambers in 2000) and it skips straight from MET to METABASES. I checked this at the time when trying to work out which sets of four letters could be arranged into the most words. “OPST” appears to be the best, with six combinations: opts, post, pots, spot, stop, tops, as I noted here. I also noted that “AEMT” comes close with five combinations, “if you allow “meta” as a word: mate, meat, meta, team and tame”.

This Oxford Dictionaries definition has five meanings for meta as a prefix. There are two from chemistry and the following three: “1 Denoting a change of position or condition. ‘metamorphosis’ / 2 Denoting position behind, after, or beyond. ‘metacarpus’ [and, I assume, ‘metatarsal’] / 3 Denoting something of a higher or second-order kind. ‘metalanguage’, ‘metonym’.”

If I were going to use “meta” in its newer sense, to describe a piece of work, it would be for the “Seinfeld” reunion episodes on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld getting back together to create new episodes of the show with which they made their fortunes. I recall, when it was broadcast in the UK in 2010, discussing it in detail with a friend who was a big fan of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” but had never seen “Seinfeld”. I was trying to explain just how self-referential it all was, how much it was tied up with the characters, storylines and subsequent careers of all those involved. There was so much going on that would have passed you by if you’d never seen the original series. It was probably very meta indeed.



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