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

This situation could develop into something of a catch-22 for Newcastle, with Benitez reportedly holding off on signing a new deal until Ashley agrees to give him the money to sign players., "Trouble Looms for Newcastle as Mike Ashley Demands Rafael Benitez Signs New Deal," 7 June 2018 The XPrize could provide a way out of this catch-22. John Timmer, Ars Technica, "Putting CO₂ to use: 10 finalists named for Carbon XPrize," 11 Apr. 2018 While new sunscreen formulas have been available for over a decade in other countries, Andrews says that the FDA has left the public with a catch-22. Rachel Nussbaum, Glamour, "Hawaii's Sunscreen Ban Doesn't Hit Until 2021, but the Reason for It Is Scary," 15 May 2018 With new freedoms came, of course, new rules and regulations — and a sort of catch-22 for High Times. Avi Selk, Washington Post, "How legalized pot could ruin a famous pot convention," 19 Apr. 2018 That catch-22 may soon cause problems in Europe — where the GDPR requires data-portability for all citizens, not just Facebook users. Russell Brandom, The Verge, "Shadow profiles are the biggest flaw in Facebook’s privacy defense," 11 Apr. 2018 It’s well-documented that millennials crave authenticity in politics — even though that standard can be a catch-22 for women. Rebecca Nelson, Cosmopolitan, "Sara Jacobs Could Be the Youngest Congresswoman Ever," 21 Feb. 2018 For decades, franchise employees who wished to bargain collectively were caught in a catch-22. Mark Joseph Stern, Slate Magazine, "Donald Trump, Union Buster," 19 Dec. 2017 The Catch-22 is that the guarantees gave drillers the security to boost output, undercutting the rally. Alex Nussbaum,, "U.S. Shale's Favorite Financial Trick Is Getting Less Attractive," 12 May 2017

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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Dictionary Entries near catch-22





catch a break

cat chain


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Time Traveler for catch-22

The first known use of catch-22 was in 1963

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English Language Learners Definition of catch-22

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

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