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 situationb : a measure or policy whose effect is the opposite of what was intendedc : a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives
3 : a hidden difficulty or means of entrapment : catch
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.
Origin and Etymology of catch–22
from Catch-22, paradoxical rule in the novel Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller
First Known Use: 1971
CATCH–22 Defined for English Language Learners
Definition of catch–22 for English Language Learners
: a difficult situation for which there is no easy or possible solution
Seen and Heard
What made you want to look up catch–22? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).