Tuesday, December 27, 2005

the separatist rebellion of the prefixes

William Safire examines the most narcissistic prefix: meta.

Not every critic is entranced (or, to get with it, ensorcelled) by such nattering of novelistic narcissism. "Meta is part of the unearned irony of the improperly educated postmodern crowd," opines Roger Kimball, an editor of The New Criterion. "It's verbal shorthand that expresses not a depth but an absence of thought. You'll find it in the slums of contemporary literary and art criticism."

The meta craze in criticism soon reached a point of parody about self-conscious parody. On Salon.com (I found it on Metacrawler, a Diogenic searcher of search engines), Stephanie Zacharek reviewed the 2002 film "Adaptation," calling it a "massively self-indulgent metamovie," adding that "if you're so meta that you're completely unimpressed with how meta it is, then you are only reinforcing the movie's point: You've been so meta-consumed by metaculture that you're no longer able to take pleasure in art."

Rarely do any of us in the language dodge find it possible to salute a lexicographer who was prescient about a linguistic development a full generation in advance. 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.