Fillers When I use a word

Meta-

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.324.7344.1022 (Published 27 April 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1022
  1. Jeff Aronson, clinical pharmacologist
  1. Oxford

    Mr John Gleave, a neurosurgeon, has written to ask me the origin of the meta- in meta-analysis. The answer comes from Aristotle.

    The Greek preposition μEmbedded ImageEmbedded ImageGraphic(meta) had several meanings, depending on whether it governed the accusative, genitive, or dative case. With the accusative it could mean coming into or among, in pursuit of, or coming after in place or time; with the genitive it could mean in the midst of, between, or in common with; and with the dative it could mean in the company of or over and above. It was also used as a prefix to express such notions as sharing, being in the midst of, succession, pursuit, reversal, and (most commonly) change. Examples of the last include metabolism, metamorphosis, and metaplasia.

    In scientific English words its uses include “consequent upon” (as in the obsolete terms meta-arthritic, metapneumonic), “behind” or “beyond” in an anatomical sense (metabranchial, metacarpal, metaphysis), “coming later” (metaphase, which comes after prophase), or “changing” (metachromasia, a property of materials that stain a different colour from the stain used). In geology meta- is used to distinguish various types of metamorphic processes. And chemists use meta- to differentiate certain metameric chemical compounds (such as metacresol, paracresol, orthocresol).

    And so to Aristotle. Some 250 years after his death, Aristotle's manuscripts came into the hands of Andronicus of Rhodes, who edited them. Andronicus called one set of papers The Physics (Embedded ImageφυEmbedded ImageEmbedded Image), dealing as they did with natural science. Then he published a set of papers that he called The Metaphysics (Embedded ImageμEmbedded ImageEmbedded ImageEmbedded ImageφυσEmbedded ImageEmbedded Image), simply because it came after The Physics. However, because The Metaphysics dealt with what Aristotle called “primary philosophy,” or ontology, metaphysics came to be misunderstood as “the science of that which transcends the physical.”

    As a result, the prefix meta- was then used to designate any higher science (actual or hypothetical) that dealt with more fundamental problems than the original science itself. This use first appeared in the early 17th century (John Donne, for example, writes about metatheology) but did not become really popular until the middle of the 19th century. Examples include metaethics (the study of the foundations of ethics, especially the nature of ethical statements) and metahistory (an inquiry into the principles that govern historical events).

    Then, from about 1940, it became commonplace to prefix meta- to designate concern with basic principles. A metacriterion is a criterion that defines criteria. A metatheorem is a theorem about theorems. A metalanguage is a language that supplies terms for analysing a language; a metametalanguage does the same for a metalanguage. And Jean Tinguely described his machine-like sculptures as “metamechanical.” (But a metaphysician is not a doctor's doctor.)

    In these poststructuralist times we recognise many metaforms. Mantissa, a medical novel by John Fowles, is metafiction; Francois Truffaut's film La Nuit Amercaine is metacinema; several paintings by Magritte, notably La Condition Humaine, are meta-art; and John Cage's piano piece 4'33” is metamusic.

    So meta-analysis is an analysis of analyses, in which sets of previously published (or unpublished) data are themselves subjected as a whole to further analysis. In this statistical sense it was first used in the 1970s by GV Glass (Educ Res 1976;3(Nov):2). As he wrote, “The term is a bit grand, but it is precise and apt.” Incidentally, meta-analysis should not be confused with metanalysis, which is the process whereby, for example, “a nadder” becomes “an adder” (see BMJ 1999;318:1758 and 2000;321:953).

    I trust that this cures Mr Gleave's metagrobolism.

    Footnotes

    • We welcome articles up to 600 words on topics such as A memorable patient, A paper that changed my practice, My most unfortunate mistake, or any other piece conveying instruction, pathos, or humour. If possible the article should be supplied on a disk. Permission is needed from the patient or a relative if an identifiable patient is referred to.

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