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A Brief History of Meta

Ethnic Suburbian explores the evolution of "meta" as a prefix, adjective and literary device.

In the late 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote an unfinished collection of stories titled “The Canterbury Tales.” The stories, written mostly in verse, explore a number of aspects of contemporary English life from the perspective of a group of pilgrims traveling to the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett in Canterbury, England.

Considered the first modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” in 1605. The plot centers around a strange and capricious old man named Alonso Quixano, who travels around the Spanish countryside as a self-proclaimed knight-errant.

In both works the authors make a curious decision to include themselves in their own books. Chaucer plays the narrator. While most narrators are “detached,” meaning they exist outside the world of the plot, Chaucer’s narrator is very much attached; he himself is a pilgrim.

Cervantes on the other hand is semi-detached; in the prologue of the first book, Cervantes claims to be Don Quixote’s stepfather, and claims he is just writing down what already happened. In Chapter 9, Cervantes even goes so far as to invent an original author for the book, “Cide Hamete Benengeli,” whose words Cervantes merely had translated from arabic.

Cervantes went on to write a Part II of Quixote’s adventures, published in 1615. In Chapter 2, Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza curiously receive a copy of the novel “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha": the original book they themselves starred in.

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This self-referencing does a few things. For one, authors appearing in their own fictional work is humorous. “Don Quixote” was meant to be a satire in the first place, it parodies the chivalric tales common at the time. Therefore such strange narrative devices were meant to be humorous. More than anything else, though, these devices added a sense of realism to the work and helped to immerse the reader in the story.

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The word “meta” comes from Greek meaning “after", "beyond", "with", "adjacent", or "self.” In the case of “metaphysics”, “meta-” means “beyond.” Other examples include meta-economics, meta-philosophy, and metamathematics. They reference the study of concepts that go beyond physics, for example.

In the early part of the twentieth century “meta-” became a prefix that meant a concept that’s an abstraction of another concept. The most common usage involves concepts that involve referencing themselves. One example would be meta-emotion, meaning one’s emotion about their own emotion.

However, as Wikipedia notes, the word “meta” stopped being purely a prefix sometime in the 1970’s and began to be an adjective meaning “self-reference.”  An example would be the following sentence:

This sentence contains thirty-six letters.

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Pop culture examples of meta in the twenty-first century abound. But Wikipedia may be right about when meta entered the general conscience. My first best example would be Monty Python.

In Season 3, Episode 6, of Python’s Flying Circus, broadcast November 23, 1972, notice how John Cleese converts the skit into a meta-skit at 1:55.

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Meta, much like it did for Cervantes and Chaucer, involves breaking down the fourth wall and taking the audience out of the trance of entertainment and into the world of the real. Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers” is one good example and I believe Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes” is similar. But my favorite example, and the example that most Americans would be familiar with, is the final episode of "Newhart":

Enjoy.

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