noun, often capitalized
\ ˈkach-ˌtwen-tē-ˈtü How to pronounce catch-22 (audio) , ˈkech- \
plural catch-22's or catch-22s

Definition of catch-22

1 : 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 worked— Mary Murphy also : the circumstance or rule that denies a solution
2a : an illogical, unreasonable, or senseless situation
b : a measure or policy whose effect is the opposite of what was intended
c : a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives
3 : a hidden difficulty or means of entrapment : catch

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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 The unrelenting catch-22 of Moren’s job is that a program never stands still. Zach Osterman, Indianapolis Star, "How Teri Moren turned IU women's basketball into something its been chasing for decades," 5 Mar. 2020 Traveling the distance necessary to reach one often requires a car—a catch-22 for those without licenses. Andrew Cockburn, Harper's magazine, "Election Bias," 6 Jan. 2020 If anything, Kennedy gave voice to the punishing catch-22 that has kept women from the helm of Hollywood's largest, most lucrative properties for, well, the entire history of the art form. Adam B. Vary,, "Women will direct four major superhero movies in 2020, and Hollywood may never be the same," 10 Dec. 2019 Makowski said that victims will be caught in a catch-22. Christina Hall, Detroit Free Press, "Eastpointe sued over ordinance that fines people for having unsecured guns in unlocked vehicles," 3 Dec. 2019 In the meantime, North American paleontologists have been caught in a catch-22. Michael Greshko, National Geographic, "New 'frozen dragon' pterosaur found hiding in plain sight," 10 Sep. 2019 Nichols, the mother of four, described a catch-22 faced by low-income workers in the area. Jonnelle Marte, Washington Post, "Citizens line up for Mississippi jobs but fear ICE raids’ impact on immigrants," 13 Aug. 2019 At its inception, though, production of NIO’s first car faces a bit of a catch-22. Sean O'kane, The Verge, "China’s NIO files for IPO in the US in push to compete with Tesla," 19 Aug. 2018 Consumers will face a catch-22: Click and risk a virus or a scam, or don’t click and miss potentially legitimate information about why a debt collector is going after you and how to dispute the debt. David Vladeck, WIRED, "The Consumer Bureau's Reckless Plan for Debt Collection," 23 Aug. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'catch-22.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of catch-22

1963, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for catch-22

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

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The first known use of catch-22 was in 1963

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Last Updated

16 Mar 2020

Cite this Entry

“Catch-22.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 Mar. 2020.

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How to pronounce catch-22 (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of catch-22

: a difficult situation for which there is no easy or possible solution

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