If you follow genre television, internet fandom, or literary criticism, you've probably heard the word "meta" used to describe everything from a narrative form, to intensive analysis of character backstories in Harry Potter. How did this Greek prefix meaning "beyond" come to mean so much to so many of us?
You can probably blame it all on philosophy. Many years after the Greek philosopher Aristotle had died, scholars collected his work into a collection where his philosophical musings were placed after his musings on physics, or science. They called this section on philosophy "metaphysics" because "meta" can be roughly translated to mean "beyond" or "after" (it can also mean a few other things, but let's leave those aside). This use of the word metaphysics quickly mutated beyond its original, literal meaning of "stuff that comes after the part on physics." It came to describe a whole branch of Western philosophy that was concerned with the realm beyond what science could describe.
And thus the weird history of "meta" began, with a slippage in meaning that pretty much never stopped sliding around. Philosophers in the millennia since Aristotle have often classified their work as "metaphysical," but meta has gone through another rapid set of changes over the last few decades.
In the early twentieth century, scholars began to use meta as a prefix to mean "something about something," so that metaeconomics is a form of economics that directly references economics — and a metalanguage is a language that's used to describe other languages. In the 1970s, critics began talking about "metafiction" and "metanarratives" — these were stories that were about storytelling itself. The literary scholar William Gass is often credited with popularizing the term "metafiction." In a 1970 essay, he wrote that metafictions emerge when "the forms of fiction serve as material upon which further forms can be imposed." No longer were writers content with writing stories about people or events; instead, they were writing stories about writing stories. Metafiction can take a number of forms — anything from the author addressing the reader directly, to an author writing a book about writing books. In movies and TV, we'd call these techniques breaking the fourth wall.
Now we're getting into territory that TV fans recognize. Shows like Supernatural are famous for their metafictional episodes where the two main characters jump into the real world and discover that they are actually actors in a TV series. And TV/movie creator Joss Whedon has turned the metafiction into his signature move — most recently, we saw this with Cabin the the Woods, which is basically a horror movie about making horror movies (but also isn't). Fans often call this kind of story "meta," which seems as if it might be short for "metafiction."
Or is it?
Let's dial back for a minute and return to the 1970s, when meta got really meta. In 1979, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter published his famous work on the nature of consciousness, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. He may have been one of the first people to use the word "meta" by itself, as a way of talking about logical loops. So it may have been Hofstadter's influence, as much as Gass', that got people using the word "meta" to describe any kind of "X about X" logic.
Today, the word meta has undergone another transformation, largely because of the intensely self-referential fandom community online. Back in the 1970s, metafiction was largely rhetorical. A creator could "talk" to his or her fans in a story, but there was no simple way for those fans to talk back. Now they can, and they do. So when creators venture beyond the fourth wall, there is a giant horde of people waiting for them.
This has meant that many shows have meta episodes that are basically fan service. So meta has become a popular trope, and fans have responded by using the term meta to describe these kinds of episodes.
But more importantly, fans have transformed the word meta yet again, turning it from an adjective that describes a kind of story into a noun that refers to a form of fan commentary. These days, any essay, rant, or analysis written by a fan is often dubbed "a meta." Over at the Teen Wolf Meta Tumblr, we see this definition spelled out quite nicely:
Meta, in Fandom terminology, is usually used to describe the analysis of a show, its characters, or Fandom itself. Very often, people create meta that is almost academic in nature, citing multiple resources and defending their point of view.
Meta, in terms of this blog, is being taken as a blanket term to include things like headcanon, ship manifestos, theories, and character analysis.
Basically, if you've made a post or a discussion about something that's occurred on Teen Wolf and have added enough detail, explanation, and evidence to support this, then it belongs here.
Interestingly, the reference to "academic" meta marks a return to the 1970 Gass definition. At that time, the discussion of metanarrative was taking place almost exclusively in scholarly circles. Through all these twists and turns, the word meta has also retained one other aspect of its origin in classical antiquity. Aristotle's philosophical commentary was what came "after" his other work. And in today's fandom, the meta comes after we've all watched or read something and are ready to get down to the analysis.
But a lot has changed, too. Meta no longer describes a literary style or logical loop. Instead, it is part of an actual conversation that's taking place between creators and audiences every day online. The rhetoric has become the real. Which is, of course, very meta.