metaclasses vs. inheritance

Aldo Cortesi aldo at
Sat Jun 29 06:36:54 CEST 2002

Thus spake Hans Nowak (wurmy at

> Aldo Cortesi wrote:
> >>PS - what's the antonym of meta?
> >
> >Hmmm... the meta- in "metaclass" or "metaphysics" really
> >has no relation to the original Greek, which means
> >"with", or "among" (as in "metatarsus" - the bones in the
> >foot which lie next to the tarsus). So whatever antonym
> >you come up with can't have anything to do with the
> >original etymology of the prefix...  Erm... How about
> >mundane? Or actual?  Intrinsic? Essential? Or even "per
> >se"....?
> In ancient Greek, it also meant "over", like Latin
> "trans"... e.g. "over the river". I think the "meta" in
> "metaclass", "metadata" etc is related to this meaning.

Hi Hans,

Are you sure about that? 

In actual fact, the interesting thing about the meta- prefix
as used in modern English, is that it is entirely based on a
misapprehension of the Ancient Greek - indeed, on the exact
same error you made above... If you have a copy of the OED
handy, look up the etymology of "metaphysics" (which is the
precursor to all of the other common meta- usages in
English). My copy (Second Edition, 1989) says that the term
derives from an Aristotelean phrase "ta meta ta physika"
(excuse the clumsy transliteration), which means "that which
comes after the Physics". It then goes on to note that:

	"[This term] came to be misinterpreted as meaning
	'the science of things transcending what is physical
	or natural'. This misinterpretation is found, though
	rarely, in Greek writers, notwithstanding the fact
	that "meta" does not admit of any such sense as
	'beyond' or 'transcending'. In scholastic Latin
	writers the error was general (being helped,
	perhaps, by the known equivalence of the prefixes
	meta- and trans- in various compounds); and in
	English its influence is seen in the custom,
	frequent down to the 17th c., of explaining
	metaphysical by words like 'supernatural',
	'transnatural', etc."



Aldo Cortesi
aldo at

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