Enabling Operational Excellence
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Metadata vs. Meta-AnythingElse

Kevin Smith, www.PragmaticEA.com, commented[1]: I am not sure why you have asked about what is meta. You know the word ‘meta’ means “information about” and so to quizzically ask what other meta things exist rather than just metadata is a bit odd. The answer (which I am sure you already know) is, of course, that you can apply the word ‘meta’ to anything you like so long as there is some benefit/reason for doing so. Perhaps you are asking so people begin to talk generally about it? My reply: Many people think they know what meta means, but I find that’s not the case. The relevant definitions for meta- from Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary(MWUD) are:

3a: beyond : transcending *metaphysics* … I would avoid this definition because it takes you to neverneverland.

3b: of a higher logical type – in nouns formed from names of disciplines and designating new but related disciplines such as can deal critically with the nature, structure, or behavior of the original ones *metalanguage* *metatheory* *metasystem* … I believe this is the useful definition.

There’s much more to meta- than simply “information about”. That usage probably arises from metadata, but meta- does not generalize to other nouns besides “data” in the sense of “information about”. There are at least two things wrong with that line of thinking:

1. It violates the basic definition (3b) of meta-. Any use of meta- must be based on the same noun. So “information about data” is disallowed in defining metadata. Instead you must say “data about data”. Change the noun and all bets are off. (The assumption here of course is you don’t mean “data” and “information” as synonyms. I certainly wouldn’t go there.)

2. It violates my additional rule for defining meta- as follows: You must always use a verb, not just a preposition. Prepositions hide meaning. So instead of “about” I would say “describes”.  That way metadata becomes “data that describes other data”. The chosen verb must be intrinsic to the meaning or purpose of the thing – in this case, data. Data always describes – no exceptions, no reasonable dissent. (It should also be an active verb.)

Introducing a verb to the core meaning of a meta- forces you to put a semantic stake in the ground. So use of meta- is not at all limited to just “information about”. The MWUD definition does not require that, or even suggest it. http://www.brsolutions.com/
[1] This series of point/counterpoint replies is a follow-up to my post “Meta Here. Meta There. Meta Everywhere?” (March 31, 2014), which generated a surprising amount of great discussion. (Thanks all!) Refer to: http://www.brsolutions.com/2014/03/31/meta-here-meta-there-meta-everywhere/  

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Ronald G. Ross

Ronald G. Ross

Ron Ross, Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rules Solutions, LLC, is internationally acknowledged as the “father of business rules.” Recognizing early on the importance of independently managed business rules for business operations and architecture, he has pioneered innovative techniques and standards since the mid-1980s. He wrote the industry’s first book on business rules in 1994.

Comments (11)

  • Kevin Lee Smith


    @Ross: “any people think they know what meta means, but I find that’s not the case.”

    100% agree.

    Including me!

    My statement was not general one directed at all people, but a specific one directed at you because I am pretty sure you know what the word meta means.

    @Ross: “1. Any use of meta- must be based on the same noun.”

    Hmmmm. You certainly got me thinking…..

    So meta-framework would have to mean a framework [about] a framework, and a meta-enterprise would have to mean an enterprise [verb/about] and enterprise.

    I don’t have enough clarity in my mind yet to say you are wrong, but it just doesn’t feel right…

    @Ross: “2. You must always use a verb, not just a preposition.”

    Hmmmm. You certainly got me thinking…..

    So meta-model could mean…

    a model that describes a model,
    a model that instantiates a model,
    a model that analyses a model,
    a model that creates a model,

    I don’t have enough clarity in my mind yet to say you are wrong, but it just doesn’t feel right that one term could have totally different meanings…

  • Kevin Lee Smith


    @Ross: “Kevin, no, one term most definitely cannot have multiple meanings.”

    Yes it can and they do. This is the problem we face.

    It wold be nice if language had no ambiguity but that’s just not the case.

    Of course this doesn’t mean that we should not strive ot remove that ambiguity – as Architects that is a big part of our job – to bring clarity – to bring order from chaos and when order cannot be born from chaos to embrace chaos and deal with it instead of ignoring it.

    So rather than a blog article for people to read to try to understand what meta is and how to use the word correctly I think we should reduce as much as possible.

    Having considered previously what you have said and the mindsotorm that produced, my Architects brain has reduced and distilled it down to one word.

    I think it is a word that we can use to helpe people understand rather than giving them your suggested grammar rules for when and how to use the 3word and what rules you must follow.

    As Deming would say, you are trying to tell people HOW to do something, when you should be telling them WHY and letting them worry about the HOW.

    “If you ask me to clean that table I cannot. You may want to use it to store surgical implements. You may want to eat off it, you may want to put a plant pot on it. Without knowing WHY I cannot clean the table. Don’t tell me HOW to clean the table – tell me WHY you want the table cleaned.”
    – W.E. Deming

    So what is this magical word I propose?

    Before I tell you let’s just get over what could be a normal knee-jerk response that people (not you) may have and just say “Ahh well, you say xxx, but you need to define xxx” – that is of course a futile loop into oblivion as the only way to stop that argfument is to demonstrate the meaning of the word through another means – through the medium of dance perhaps! (Actually I could probably do that because I used to be a dancer (ballet and contemporary and a choreographer).

    Anyway, so what’s the word?

    What’s the answer?

    To the question…

    What does meta mean?


    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross


      Confucius said (several 1000 years ago): “Learning to call things by their right names is the first step toward wisdom.”

  • Kevin Lee Smith


    Is that the only thing you can respond with after the time I took to answer and the, IMHO, important point I make.

    I am not sure your one line answer do justice to my comments.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross


      I would respectfully suggest that you find a definition of “context” from Merriam-Webster’s that applies, and compare to the definition of “meta-“. No much point in having a conversation about such matters without defining terms.

  • Kevin Lee Smith


    @Ronald: “No much point in having a conversation about such matters without defining terms.”

    Since this is a discussion about defining terms, I think your circular point is not really valid.

    It might be better to put forward your views on using hte word context to explain to people what the word meta means as I have suggested.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross


      Kevin, So pick your definition of “context” from Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary’s (below, and we’ll go from there.

      1 obsolete : the weaving together of words in language; also : the discourse or writing so produced
      2 : the part or parts of a written or spoken passage preceding or following a particular word or group of words and so intimately associated with them as to throw light upon their meaning
      3 : the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs : ENVIRONMENT *historical context* *within the general context of world disarmament— M.W.Straight* *that each man have an understanding of himself and of his job in its context— Oscar Handlin*
      4 obsolete a : coherence
      5 : things or conditions that serve to date or characterize an article (as a primitive artifact) : SURROUNDINGS
      6 : the fleshy part of the pileus of a mushroom or other pileate fungus as distinguished from the hymenium

  • Kevin Lee Smith


    I am not sure that starting with staid dictionary definitions that have no context is a good place to start.

    Ahh – It seems I have been proved right in that none of those definitions you offer serve to define what we mean in Architecture or Enterprise by the word Context.

    “the things that are not part of something but are in some way related to that something that can generally be split into a) things that set the reason for its existence and b) the constraints placed upon it.”


    So if we say meta ? context then a meta-model is the thing(s) which set the context for a model =

    a) the reason(s) the existence of the model
    b) the constraint(s)s placed upon the model

    A meta-method =

    a) the reason(s) the existence of the method
    b) the constraint(s)s placed upon the method


    (FYI my context is to create something pragmatic that is not 100% correct and mostly useless but something which is 80% correct and extremely useful.)

  • Kevin Lee Smith


    Since my last comment elicited no response whatsoever, I have had a brain wave.

    The word meta is a placeholder repeater for whatever word you put after it!


    meta-model is a model about models.
    meta-framework is a framework about a frameworks.
    meta-data is data about data (datum?).

    Basically another way of looking at it, is that placing meta in front of a word mean you are moving up the Idealisation/Realisation abstraction hierarchy.


    Also, use of the work depends at what point you are looking at (your frame of reference)…

    For example, if you look at a model, then what is above it (in the abstraction hierarchy) you would refer to as a meta-model.
    However, if you are working at that meta-model level you could refer to information at that level as a model (because it is!) – which means the level above that you would refer to as a meta-model – while the person below you would refer to it as a meta-meta-model.

    This is why people get confused talking about such things (actually many things).
    It depends on their context, and as POET teaches us, Context is King™


  • Kevin Lee Smith


    I love deadlines.

    I love the whoosing sound they make as they fly by!

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