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In reference to the witticism "Anything you can do, I can do meta", cited in "Doing Meta: from meta-language to meta-clippy", 1/32/3007, Michael Smith asked:

I was wondering whether you were ever given, or able to find, a citation for "Anything you can do, I can do meta" earlier than the reported use by Samuel Hahn in 1991.

Let me explain my interest.  Each year the Department of Philosophy at Princeton makes a t-shirt for the graduating class with a quotation of their choice on it.  This year they've chosen "Anything you can do, I can do meta", but of course they have no idea who said it.  I'd quite like to be able to tell them when it first appeared in print, if that's known.

Prof. Smith followed up with this post scriptum:

After a little further searching on Google I came up with the attached article from 1979 (see p.1230, footnote 2).  However, if you know of an earlier citation, or of a credit to someone other than Lipson, I'd be grateful if you would let me know.

The attached article is Arthur Allen Leff, "Unspeakable ethics, unnatural law", Duke Law Journal, December 1979. The passage in question reads as follows:

I shall first try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will. I shall then try to trace some fo the scars left on recent jurisprudential writings by this growing, and apparently terrifying, realization. Finally, I shall say a few things about — of all things — law and the way in which the impossibility of normative grounding hecessarily shapes attitudes toward constitutional interpretation.2

2. My colleague, Leon Lipson, once described a certain species of legal writing as, "Anything you can do, I can do meta." What follows is a pure instantiation of his category.

Arthur Allen Leff (1935-1981) was at Yale Law School, and so was Leon Lipson, who died in 1996. I don't know enough about the language of law professors in the 1970s to understand the background of their use of meta.

I'm pretty sure that I heard this phrase used around the MIT AI Lab, Xerox PARC, etc., no later than 1978 and probably during the 1972-1975 period, in the context of language/meta-language issues coming out of logic and philosophy of language, and imported into discussion of programming language semantics as well as general theories of meaning. Note also that keyboards at SAIL as well as at MIT had meta keys (I think) in the late 1960s, but certainly by the mid-70s.

Can anyone document a more specific source for the quotation? (The discussion in my 2007 post, though inconclusive, is a place to start.)

The limiting time would be 1946, the date of Irving Berlin's musical Annie Get Your Gun, in which "Anything you can do, I can do better" is the climactic song.

[Here's a maddeningly open-textured memory -- time and place uncertain, validity also uncertain. I think this was around 1978, maybe at MIT, maybe somewhere else, and Brian Smith was giving a talk about the ideas on computational "reflection" (a way for "a computational system to 'reason' effectively and consquentially about its own inference processes") that were eventually laid out in his 1982 MIT PhD thesis.  Afterwards, someone in the audience raised his hand and said "So what you're saying is, 'anything you can do, I can do meta'". Or maybe not, and someone made the joke about Brian's work in some other context. In either case, I don't think it was the first time that I heard the phrase.]

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12 Comments »

  1. Jens Fiederer said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    Post-1946 is probably a safe assumption — the probability that Berlin was actually influenced by the earlier "meta" version seems negligible.

  2. Sili said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    I shall first try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will.

    A remarkably apropos quote given the current brouhahah over Sam Harris' TED talk* claiming that there is some kinda Natural Law.

    *Speaking of which, why haven't any of the Loggers been invited to TED yet?

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    Are you quite sure that the phrase originated with Berlin's song?

  4. Bryan said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    I've previously heard it attributed to Charles Simony, who got his PhD in Computer Science in the 70s, but I have no hard evidence.

  5. Bryan said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    That should be "Simonyi" of course.

  6. David said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    I can't actually think of a more recent example, post 1946, but it's worth asking around campus.

  7. Lazar said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    I feel compelled to share a quote that I made up myself, and have used on a number of online venues:

    MO' META = MO' BETTA!

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    The meta/better substitution is cleaner for the non-rhotic (although it's reasonably transparent to us members of the Rhotic-American Community, unlike for example A.A. Milne's Eeyore = hee-haw, which was totally opaque to me as a child). It would be interesting to know to what extent its early propagation was in non-rhotic circles, although I would assume e.g. that the indigenes of the MIT Media Lab did not overwhelmingly speak indigenous Eastern Massachusetts English.

  9. metanea said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 6:27 am

    Had to blog this:

    "meta" news: "Anything you can do, I can do meta" [Language Log]

    Gotta agree with Lazar, mo meta mo betta!

  10. Private Zydeco said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    This not said with a spiteful mien at all, nor in oppugnment of the supposed idiocy it takes to commit typographic mistakes, but…
    "1/32/3007"? LOL That's a hum-dinger!

  11. Private Zydeco said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    Language Log: the language blog of a thousand years from now, TODAY!

  12. nmacmillan said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    Hofstadter?

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