They said, almost in chorus, that meta is "self-referential." I had to ask them again because it sounded so abstract, and was surprised that people would use such a concept in casual conversation. "It means 'self-referential'," they repeated with annoyance, as if it's no big deal that such a word exists, or they couldn't believe I didn't know the word.
I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the concept because people throw the word around without being precise or perhaps correct (like when a business "disrupts" an industry but not really, strictly speaking, which I'll discuss in a future post).
In a "meta" discussion on Reddit, someone quoted an article with a prediction that's come true 30 years later, which I also found quoted in a decade-plus-old column in the New York Times:
In an article in The New Republic of Sept. 5, 1988, titled "Meta Musings," David Justice, then editor for pronunciation and etymology at Merriam-Webster, was quoted as saying, "Meta is currently the fashionable prefix." The writer, Noam Cohen, added: "He predicts that, like retro -- whose use solely as a prefix is so, well, retro -- meta could become independent from other words, as in, 'Wow, this sentence is so meta.' If so, you heard it from me first."I used to often watch old Hollywood movies on TV, and I noticed that a number of them took place in Hollywood. The most obvious is Singin' in the Rain. So now that I've learned what "meta" means, I know I have one word to describe them, a better shorthand than saying, "So many old Hollywood movies were stories about Hollywood and the movie business." Now I can just say those movies are "meta."
My prediction is that the word will no longer just mean "self-referential" but become something else that initially relates to the original meaning (or what purists now see as "evolved" because the word has already changed), or eventually mean something more diluted, such as what's become of "awesome," or something totally unrelated, like what's happened to "nice."