or catch-22

[ kach-twen-tee-too ]
/ ˈkætʃˌtwɛn tiˈtu /
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noun, plural Catch-22's, Catch-22s.
a frustrating situation in which one is trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.
any illogical or paradoxical problem or situation; dilemma.
a condition, regulation, etc., preventing the resolution of a problem or situation; catch.
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Origin of Catch-22

From a military regulation in a novel of the same name (1961) by U.S. novelist Joseph Heller (1923–99)
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does Catch-22 mean?

Coming from the novel of the same name, a Catch-22 is a situation where one is trapped by two contradictory conditions. It’s more generally used to refer to a paradox or dilemma.

Example: to get a certain job, you need work experience. But to get that work experience, you need to have had a job. It’s a Catch-22.

Where does Catch-22 come from?

Catch 22 comes from Joseph Heller’s 1961 classic novel, Catch-22, a satirical depiction of the American military bureaucracy in World War II. In it, Heller describes a military regulation, Catch-22, putting a pilot named Orr in an impossible situation:

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 would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were 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.

The word catch, here, is a “hidden difficulty” or “snag,” a sense dating back to the 1850s. The novel’s first chapter was published under Catch-18 in 1955, later changed to 22 to avoid confusion with another contemporaneous novel with 18 in its title. 

The number 22 was chosen, apparently, because it’s the double of 11 (playing duality and duplication).

Since its publication, the influential Catch-22 has become part of the classics many of us read in school. The novel was notably adapted into a 1970 film by Mike Nichols. Since the 1970s, its central problem, the Catch-22 (often spelled without a hyphen and lowercase C), has become a common expression for any kind of a self-contradictory situation or unsolvable dilemma.

How is Catch-22 used in real life?

People like to use Catch 22 to describe situations that they feel are contradictory, sending mixed signals, or just unfair.

Such contradictions are identified at Catch-22’s, in keeping with the term’s reference to a formal rule, in contemporary laws and regulations.

Catch 22 has also expanded to refer to any plight or problem more generally.

The novel Catch-22 is often quoted or referenced because of its keen discussions of war, society, and bureaucracy.

More examples of Catch-22:

“Sounds like a complete Catch 22. You make a new claim and they put you through the mill or you wait to see what happens and they terminate what you have been entitled to and delay several weeks to intentionally put you into debt. Sadistic evil government.”
—@ghost36hop9, June 2018

“Federal funding represents a Catch-22 for local governments. Cash-strapped cities like Jackson need the money to help with billions of dollars in infrastructure needs…But cities that take federal dollars know their projects will be subject to numerous federal regulations that increase costs and stretch out completion times by months or years.”
—Anthony Warren, The Northside Sun, June 2018


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use Catch-22 in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for Catch-22


a situation in which a person is frustrated by a paradoxical rule or set of circumstances that preclude any attempt to escape from them
a situation in which any move that a person can make will lead to trouble

Word Origin for catch-22

C20: from the title of a novel (1961) by the US writer J. Heller (1923–99)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for Catch-22


(1961) A war novel by the American author Joseph Heller. “Catch-22” is a provision in army regulations; it stipulates that a soldier's request to be relieved from active duty can be accepted only if he is mentally unfit to fight. Any soldier, however, who has the sense to ask to be spared the horrors of war is obviously mentally sound, and therefore must stay to fight.

notes for Catch-22

Figuratively, a “catch-22” is any absurd arrangement that puts a person in a double bind: for example, a person can't get a job without experience, but can't get experience without a job.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Other Idioms and Phrases with Catch-22


A no-win dilemma or paradox, similar to damned if I do, damned if I don't. For example, You can't get a job without experience, but you can't get experience unless you have a job—it's Catch-22. The term gained currency as the title of a 1961 war novel by Joseph Heller, who referred to an Air Force rule whereby a pilot continuing to fly combat missions without asking for relief is regarded as insane, but is considered sane enough to continue flying if he does make such a request.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.