The Greeks put the 'meta' in 'metaverse'

In English, a metaphor is a figure of speech that asserts one thing “is” another. In Greek, metaphoreis are the people who move your furniture.


In English, a metaphor is a figure of speech that asserts one thing “is” another, describing or making a claim about the first thing in a vivid, memorable way: “You are my rock.” In Greek, metaphoreis are the people who move your furniture. The prefix meta- (which comes from Greek) here means “change, transformation, substitution” and phora “bearer.” The English word transports one thing into another, linguistically; the Greek transports things physically.  

Meta has been in the news recently, because Mark Zuckerberg announced that Meta would be the new name of Facebook, the company he founded and runs. The new moniker reflects a change in the company’s focus, from social media in which people share aspects of their actual, embodied life, to the metaverse, “the next evolution of social connection,” according to the website.

Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson coined the term metaverse in his novel “Snow Crash,” published in 1992. He imagined a virtual world on top of our real one. Right now, the metaverse exists only in bits and pieces – you can put on a virtual reality headset and play a game, or experience augmented reality in which a computer-generated image is superimposed on what you see through your phone – as in the popular game Pokémon Go – or a pair of “smart glasses.” But the company formerly known as Facebook wants to “help bring the metaverse to life,” hence the rebrand.    

The meta- of metaverse has a different sense from that of metaphor. It means “above, beyond, at a higher level,” as in metaethics. Ethics involves questions of “what practices are right and wrong, and what our obligations to other people or future generations are,” according to philosopher Catherine Wilson; metaethics takes a step back and looks at the discipline itself, what it means to think about ethics. Likewise, the metaverse is “above” or “beyond” the actual universe we inhabit. 

As an adjective, meta has become a disparaging synonym for “self-referential.” A meme about memes is meta. A movie about people making a movie about movies is definitely meta. “Meta” does not automatically equal “deep,” as pop culture is quick to point out. Too much self-referentiality might get shut down with a “Whoa, that’s so meta.”    

Add a “t” and you get metta, an unrelated homophone (a word that sounds the same). In Pali, the original language of many Buddhist texts, metta is “benevolence” or “lovingkindness.” Buddhists and secular meditators practice metta meditation, in which they wish well to outward-expanding layers of people, from themselves, to their friends, to their enemies, and to the whole world.   

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