plural catch-22's or catch-22s
often capitalized
: a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule
the show-business catch-22—no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you've workedMary Murphy
also : the circumstance or rule that denies a solution
: an illogical, unreasonable, or senseless situation
: a measure or policy whose effect is the opposite of what was intended
: a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives
: a hidden difficulty or means of entrapment : catch

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Catch-22 originated as the title of a 1961 novel by Joseph Heller. (Heller had originally planned to title his novel Catch-18, but the publication of Leon Uris's Mila 18 persuaded him to change the number.) The novel's catch-22 was as follows: a combat pilot was crazy by definition (he would have to be crazy to fly combat missions) and since army regulations stipulated that insanity was justification for grounding, a pilot could avoid flight duty by simply asking, but if he asked, he was demonstrating his sanity (anyone who wanted to get out of combat must be sane) and had to keep flying. Catch-22 soon entered the language as the label for any irrational, circular, and impossible situation.

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The History of Catch-22

The original catch-22 was a governmental loophole involved in Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22. Heller’s novel follows the exploits of a bombardier in World War II, and in doing so shines a light on the relentless and circular bureaucracy of war and wartime governments. The term is introduced to describe the apparent loophole, or catch, that prevents a pilot from asking for a mental evaluation to determine if he’s fit to fly:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own 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 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.

Catch-22 appears several times in the novel, always invoked to explain a contradiction or an inescapable paradox caused by the rule itself. It was adopted into general English to refer to an illogical situation, or a problem in which the solution is denied by the problem itself.

Examples of catch-22 in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Every legacy automaker is facing this catch-22 right now. IEEE Spectrum, 24 Nov. 2020 That catch-22 might give some folks pause for sure. Neil Senturia, San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 Mar. 2023 Interventions that target trust could therefore be part of a solution to the catch-22 of loneliness. Marta Zaraska, Quanta Magazine, 28 Feb. 2023 If, as Klein suggests more soundly, addressing those tensions requires a drastic program of democratic reforms, then the true remedy for polarization is a bit of a catch-22. Osita Nwanevu, The New Republic, 19 May 2020 Thus, Brussels faces a catch-22: Without coronabonds, populism may overwhelm the south; with coronabonds, populism may rise in the north. Peter Rough, National Review, 22 Apr. 2020 There's a catch-22 of brutal absurdity regarding af Klint. Sheri Linden, The Hollywood Reporter, 17 Apr. 2020 For tourists obsessed with beating the crowds, Covid-19 is a catch-22. Laura Mallonee, Wired, 12 Apr. 2020 City’s catch-22 Hiring for mental health professionals is a major issue in San Francisco, where the cost of living is soaring but salaries for mental health care workers are stagnant. Dominic Fracassa,, 15 Oct. 2019 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'catch-22.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


from Catch-22, paradoxical rule in the novel Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller

First Known Use

1963, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of catch-22 was in 1963


Dictionary Entries Near catch-22

Cite this Entry

“Catch-22.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 1 Dec. 2023.

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