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January 3rd, 2007

Going meta / alumni/-ae

by Barbara Wallraff

Jim Springhetti, of Portland, Ore., writes: “‘Meta’ -- my wife says I use this word incorrectly. For instance, I might make a comment such as ‘You look incredible’ as she gets ready for work. She doesn’t respond directly but comments on the comment: ‘I’m late. You had your chance last night.’ I say she’s ‘going meta,’ because she leaps to the conclusion that I’m trying coax her back into bed. She says that’s not an appropriate use of the word ‘meta.’ Which, by my logic, is another instance of ‘going meta,’ because she is commenting on my use of the word ‘meta’ rather than on the point I’m trying to make. It gets confusing. Can you help?”

Dear Jim: Congratulations to both of you for knowing the phrase “going meta” -- even if you disagree about what it means.

Most American dictionaries don’t treat “meta” as a stand-alone word at all, calling it just a prefix. But according to a 2004 draft entry in the Oxford English Dictionary online, “meta” has been appearing in print as a word for almost 20 years. It has to do with “a consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying style, whereby something (as a situation, person, etc.) reflects or represents the very characteristics it alludes to or depicts.” For example (this citation comes from a 1993 online article in the Boston Globe): “When anchorwoman Connie Chung made a guest appearance on sitcom ‘Murphy Brown’ to advise anchorwoman Murphy not to sacrifice her journalistic integrity by making a guest appearance on a sitcom, that was just plain meta.”
As for the phrase “going meta,” it appears on a number of Web sites, including a scholarly one called Language Log, which last summer posted a short article headlined “Everybody’s going meta,” about “meta-commentary” in the comic strips “Beetle Bailey” and “Mother Goose and Grimm.” (Don’t ask.)

“Meta” is evidently an abbreviation of “meta-commentary”; meta-commentary is, as you say, comments about previous remarks or comments, rather than ones responding to the point of them; and “going meta” means making comments like that. Your wife, in the first exchange you report, wasn’t commenting on your comment itself but on your presumed motivation for making it. And when you accused her of going meta, her response was no, that wasn’t what she was doing -- which seems direct and un-meta to me. So I side with her. Just between us, though, a marriage counselor might be a better person than I am for you to talk to about all this.

Jeff Potter, of Shelburne Falls, Mass., writes: “A local private school has started printing ‘alumni/-ae notes.’ Is this an educational trend? What is your opinion of gender-neutral Latin?”

Dear Jeff: Once we started saying “fire fighter” instead of “fireman,” “chair” instead of “chairman” or “chairwoman” and so on, I suppose “alumni/-ae” became inevitable. In classical Latin, the masculine form “alumni” was used for mixed-sex groups. But there just never seems to be a place for an alumni publication to put an asterisk and a footnote pointing that out, to justify ignoring “alumnae.” Besides, the footnote would only cause readers to object that ancient Rome was benightedly patriarchal and we mustn’t be bound by its conventions. It’s true. No self-respecting ancient Roman would have written “alumni/-ae.” But we aren’t in Rome, and we needn’t do as the Romans once did.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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