Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading





Catch 22

Catch me if you can.

Dear WD: What is a “Catch 22″ and what is its origin? I’ve heard it used many times but still cannot gather what it means even by looking at what the words around it are. — Cassandra Jenkins.

Go ahead, make me feel old. Next you’ll be asking me what “crash pad” means. Actually, I knew I was hopelessly over the hill a few years ago when an inquisitive twentysomething asked me, in dewy-eyed innocence, “Were The Beatles at Woodstock?” Oh yes, absolutely, of course. And so were Benny Goodman, Scott Joplin and that Brahms dude. Incidentally, apropos The Beatles, I’ve been in mild shock ever since I heard recently that Paul McCartney was to be knighted. For what? “An Old Fashioned Love Song”? “Band on the Run”? What are they putting in the water over there?

Onward. I am supposing that your not knowing what “Catch 22″ means is evidence of your relative youth because the phrase is of fairly recent vintage and made quite a splash when it arrived in common usage. “Catch 22″ is the title of a novel published in 1961, written by Joseph Heller and based on his experiences as a World War II bomber pilot in Europe. The central character in “Catch 22″ (which you really ought to read, by the way) is the pilot Yossarian, whose all-too-accurate perception of the futility and insanity of war leads him to seek a psychiatric exemption from flying further combat missions. But Yossarian runs smack into what Heller dubbed “Catch 22″ (“catch” in this sense meaning “snag”). As Heller put it, “There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22…. If he flew them [more missions] he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

In inventing “Catch 22,” Joseph Heller had really only given a name to a particularly modern sort of bureaucratic conundrum, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first.” More mundane examples of “Catch 22″ would be needing a driver’s license to get to Motor Vehicles to take your driving test, or my personal favorite, needing to be rich to avoid paying income tax.

4 comments to Catch 22

  • Peter Cowen


    As I heard the story, Heller’s original title was “Catch 18″ but Leon Uris published “Mila 18″ and so prompted Heller to search for a number not presenting a conflict. Both books were published in 1961, so whatever else was going on 22 was available.

    Best Wishes!

  • Rick Lapin

    Actually, the phrase is finally boiled down to its essence in Chapter 39, when the old woman tells Yossarian that Catch-22 says “they have the right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

    It’s another way of saying “might makes right” — as this country continues to discover daily.

  • Robin Holbrook

    Klinger (MASH) sites Catch 22 all the time! It isn’t named as such because it hadn’t been named yet. As for the book CATCH 22 it is ta MUST READ! I read it in college ( beck in the late 60’s.) Our project was to put the events of the book in chronological order. I’ll save you the agony: it’s impossible! It’s another way Heller uses to show us the chaos and fruitlessness of war. We, however, still have NOT learned.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!