before vowels sten-, word-forming element meaning "narrow," from Greek stenos "narrow, strait," as a noun "straits of the sea, narrow strip of land," also metaphorically, "close, confined; scanty, petty," from PIE *sten- "narrow."
word-forming element meaning "after," from Latin post "behind, after, afterward," from *pos-ti (source also of Arcadian pos, Doric poti "toward, to, near, close by;" Old Church Slavonic po "behind, after," pozdu "late;" Lithuanian pas "at, by"), from PIE *apo- (source also of Greek apo "from," Latin ab "away from" see apo-).
1898 in the modern sense of "change the order of" (earlier "to change, alter, 16c. but obsolete thereafter), from Latin permutatus, past participle of permutare "change thoroughly, exchange" (see permutation). "Probably regarded by those who use it as a back-formation from permutation" [OED]. Compare permute. Related: Permutated; permutating.
before vowels reduced to ep-, before aspirated vowels eph-, word-forming element meaning "on, upon, above," also "in addition to; toward, among," from Greek epi "upon, at, close upon (in space or time), on the occasion of, in addition," also "after," from PIE *epi, *opi "near, at, against" (source also of Sanskrit api "also, besides;" Avestan aipi "also, to, toward;" Armenian ev "also, and;" Latin ob "toward, against, in the way of;" Oscan op, Greek opi- "behind;" Hittite appizzis "younger;" Lithuanian ap- "about, near;" Old Church Slavonic ob "on"). A productive prefix in Greek; also used in modern scientific compounds (such as epicenter).
word-forming element meaning "under, beneath; behind; from under; resulting from further division," from Latin preposition sub "under, below, beneath, at the foot of," also "close to, up to, towards;" of time, "within, during;" figuratively "subject to, in the power of;" also "a little, somewhat" (as in sub-horridus "somewhat rough"), from PIE *(s)up- (perhaps representing *ex-upo-), a variant form of the root *upo "under," also "up from under." The Latin word also was used as a prefix and in various combinations.
In Latin assimilated to following -c-, -f-, -g-, -p-, and often -r- and -m-. In Old French the prefix appears in the full Latin form only "in learned adoptions of old Latin compounds" [OED], and in popular use it was represented by sous-, sou-; as in French souvenir from Latin subvenire, souscrire (Old French souzescrire) from subscribere, etc.
The original meaning is now obscured in many words from Latin (suggest, suspect, subject, etc.). The prefix is active in Modern English, sometimes meaning "subordinate" (as in subcontractor); "inferior" (17c., as in subhuman); "smaller" (18c.); "a part or division of" (c. 1800, as in subcontinent).
word-forming element of Greek origin meaning 1. "after, behind; among, between," 2. "changed, altered," 3. "higher, beyond;" from Greek meta (prep.) "in the midst of; in common with; by means of; between; in pursuit or quest of; after, next after, behind," in compounds most often meaning "change" of place, condition, etc. This is from PIE *me- "in the middle" (source also of German mit, Gothic miþ, Old English mið "with, together with, among").
The notion of "changing places with" probably led to the senses of "change of place, order, or nature," which was a principal meaning of the Greek word when used as a prefix (but it also denoted "community, participation; in common with; pursuing").
The third, modern, sense, "higher than, transcending, overarching, dealing with the most fundamental matters of," is due to misinterpretation of metaphysics (q.v.) as "science of that which transcends the physical." This has led to a prodigious erroneous extension in modern usage, with meta- affixed to the names of other sciences and disciplines, especially in the academic jargon of literary criticism: Metalanguage (1936) "a language which supplies terms for the analysis of an 'object' language;" metalinguistics (by 1949); metahistory (1957), metacommunication, etc.