This Story Is So 'Meta' Why has 'meta' become a catch-all adjective for a culture that's increasingly self-referential, self-conscious, and self-parodying? Linguist Ben Zimmer says we're living in truly meta times.
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This Story Is So 'Meta'

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This Story Is So 'Meta'

This Story Is So 'Meta'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And I'm just going to - bear with me - pull up an email that I wrote recently to Ben Zimmer. Hold on. And he is the language columnist at the Boston Globe. OK. Here's what I wrote.

(Reading) Dear Ben. Every 20-something on our show on the staff uses the word meta all the time, as in: That's so meta, dude. So what's going on? Because I'd been hearing this all the time, I had no idea what it actually meant. So Ben wrote back this very, very long email to me, and instead of reading it to you, we just asked Ben to come onto the program. Ben, are you there?

BEN ZIMMER: I'm right here.

RAZ: OK. That's so meta, that's so meta, dude; dude, that is meta. What is meta? And did it miss something?


ZIMMER: Well, meta has long been a prefix from Greek and meaning above and beyond.

RAZ: Metaphysical.

ZIMMER: Exactly.

RAZ: Yeah. I know that.

ZIMMER: And metaphysical is one step beyond the physical realm. And you can also talk about metalanguage, meta-commentary, something that's a higher level of abstraction or analysis. So that was used in lots of different academic and professional settings that it eventually started getting used just as a stand-alone adjective. The way it gets used now really refers to anything that is self-referential, self-parodying, in some way, in this kind of recursive fashion.

RAZ: Ben, clearly, you've been thinking a lot about this, because when I sent you an email, I think you - I got a response, like, 15 minutes later with all of these examples, including one that you were thinking about for a while. This happened in your native town of New York City. What happened?

ZIMMER: Well, last December, I think I really realized exactly how meta a world we're living in it. It was while the Occupy Wall Street movement was still hanging on in Lower Manhattan. There was something very strange going on. There was a TV show, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and it set up a replica of that Occupy Wall Street encampment in another spot - Foley Square - not far from where the actual encampment was.

RAZ: They set it up to film it.

Yeah. Exactly. So they were going to dramatize the Occupy movement for the show.


DANNY PINO: (as Detective Nick Amaro) So where were you at 6 last night?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Uptown at a drum circle outside the mayor's house.

But then the real-life Occupiers who were getting kicked out of Zuccotti Park got wind of this. Well, they said, hey, there's a mockupation going on. So they showed up...


ZIMMER: ...and occupied the TV set.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The protestors, they don't want TV to co-op their movement.

ZIMMER: And on Twitter, they were using hashtags, like Occupy Occupy Wall Street.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whose fake park?


ZIMMER: Eventually, the occupiers got kicked out by real police, and the whole thing was over. But while that was happening, I was just amazed. I mean, this was truly a meta moment and somehow really seemed to encapsulate how everything in the culture now can become self-referential, self-conscious, self-parrying and create this kind of endless feedback loop.

RAZ: OK. While I have you here, Ben, I'm going to take advantage of your expertise, and I want to ask you a few other things: Random. That's so random. That is so random.


ZIMMER: Yeah. We do hear random quite a lot. And it's interesting. Like meta, words that get used a lot very often will tell us something about what the culture is going through right now. We can experience a lot of randomness in online culture that mixes different elements that normally wouldn't go together. There's all sorts of mash-ups of stylistically different songs and all sorts of unexpected experiences that people are using random these days as a kind of all-purpose label for anything out of the norm.

And it can become just a catchall description sometimes injected into the conversation with a kind of a sing-song quality, like, random. So it almost becomes a refrain. And that is actually another kind of meta commentary on whatever is happening in the situation.

RAZ: Awkward.

ZIMMER: Awkward is another one that has that sing-song quality, exactly. And so it's a way of lightening the mood. Perhaps there's something unexpected or something that makes you a little uncomfortable. So saying something like random or awkward might help to diffuse the situation. On the other hand, it could have the opposite effect. If you say awkward, you might also be drawing attention to the awkwardness if there's an awkward silence or something like that that you're trying to fill up. So it's a double-edged sword.

RAZ: Like Ben Zimmer is in a room with his wife and his ex-girlfriend of 20 years. And his wife says: Awkward.


ZIMMER: That would certainly draw attention to the situation.

RAZ: Yeah. That's linguist Ben Zimmer. He's the executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and a language columnist for the Boston Globe. Ben, thank you. I now have expanded my vocabulary.

ZIMMER: Well, my pleasure.


RON SEXSMITH: (Singing) I brought a song into this world, just a melody with words. It trembles here before my eyes.

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