A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "Catch-22"?

April 29, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

Why do they call a no-win situation a "Catch-22"?

You know you're old when people ask about the origin of phrases that were introduced in your lifetime.

 The phrase "Catch-22" comes from the book of that name by Joseph Heller (1923-1999), published in 1961. Catch-22 is a wonderful book, full of dark humor and absurdity, satirizing war, military bureaucracy, and by extension modern life and the ways in which they destroy the human spirit.

The word "catch" of course is used in the sense of snare, snag or entanglement.

The story is set in Italy in World War II. The main character, Captain Yossarian, is a bombardier (as Heller had been) who wants to get out of flying potentially deadly combat missions. So does his tent-mate, Orr. The easiest way to get out of flying more missions is to plead insanity. Heller writes:

There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and he would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to, but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

In short, Catch-22 is "heads I win, tails you lose." If you can, you can't, and if you can't, you can. Fair is foul and foul is fair. Whenever you try to behave sensibly in a crazy world, there's a catch.

Heller writes:

Yossarian strode away, cursing Catch-22 vehemently even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up.

In fact, Heller originally wanted to name his dilemma Catch-18, but a book by Leon Uris called Mila 18, historical fiction about the Warsaw ghetto uprising during WWII, had just been published, and the publishers were afraid there would be confusion. (Mila 18 was a street address.)

So, there really isn't a Catch-22, despite its pervasiveness--and that's an example of the catch, of course. Circular dilemmas of this sort appear over and over in the book. Sometimes the Catch is mentioned explicitly, more often not. Some other examples of Catch-22 in action, from the book:

  • Major Major is a commander who doesn't command. He hates dealing with people, and is somewhat frightened of them. He therefore instructs his receptionist/orderly that, whenever he is in his office, any visitors should be told he is out. When he leaves his office (sneaking out the back window), the receptionist can send visitors in to see him. In short, the only time you can see Major Major in his office is when he's out. If he's in, you can't see him. It's an example of Catch-22, although the catch is not explicitly mentioned in this connection.
  • Doctor Daneeka is a doctor who responds to patients' complaints by telling them his own troubles.
  • The military police chase the girls away from Yossarian's favorite haunt. When asked what right they have to do this, they reply, "Catch-22." Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything that you can't stop them from doing. And if you ask to see Catch-22, the law says they don't have to show it to you. What law? Catch-22, of course.
  • In the hospital, the Soldier in White (in a plaster cast from head to toe) has a bottle of plasma going in and a bottle of urine coming out. The nurses routinely switch the bottles around, in an endless cycle.
  • The Chaplain, when cornered, lies. He knows that telling lies and defecting from duty are sins. He also knows that sin is evil and that no good can come from evil. "But he did feel good; he felt positively marvelous. Consequently, it followed logically that telling lies and defecting from duty could not be sins."

Heller goes on, "The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery."

So, that's the essence of the Catch. The book was ahead of its time, according to the CNN obituary of Joseph Heller from December 13, 1999, "seemingly written for the generations that followed in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s."

During the Vietnam era, the phrase "Catch-22" became a buzz-word for being caught in a no-win, circular dilemma and has now become common usage. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Catch-22 as "a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first."

You've probably encountered similar experiences yourself. I had a colleague who was transferred to the U.S. from Australia. His final exasperation was car insurance: in order to get car insurance in the U.S., based on his age, he needed to have evidence that he was insurable, which means he needed to have prior insurance with a U.S. insurer. He couldn't get insurance because he didn't have insurance. I said to him, "It's a Catch-22," and he knew exactly what I meant.

Evan Morris, THE WORD DETECTIVE, at www.word-detective.com, comments that his "personal favorite" example of Catch-22 is "needing to be rich to avoid paying income tax." I leave it to you to find other examples in your daily life.

The book Catch-22 is both hilarious and profound. In his walk through the streets of Rome, Yossarian sees suffering and poverty and murder, and has a lengthy soliloquy:

What a lousy earth! How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with an Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere.

Heller once said, "Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts, and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?"

Robert M. Young, writing about Catch-22, answers, "For the most part, what they try to do is survive in any way they can."

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