Q&A: Why is it a “catch-22”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, here's the catch…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the story with the term “catch-22”?

A: Would you like to know where it comes from?

Q: No, I’d like to know if it enjoys water sports… OF COURSE I’d like to know where it came from!

A: No need to get upset. It’s an idiom for a circular argument.

Q: A circular argument? Do you mean like the time I complained about my round pizza being delivered in a square box?

A: No.

Q: Or the time that I argued with my partner about putting a “no junk mail” sign on my letterbox?

A: No, circular as in paradoxical. Macquarie Dictionary describes this condition as one that “prevents the completion of a sequence of operations and which may establish a futile self-perpetuating cycle.”

Q: Example?

A: To be told you can’t get a job because they want someone with experience. But if you can’t get the job, you’re unable to get that experience. The conflicting and contradicting elements mean it’s a situation without escape.

Q: We seem to take it for granted these days, but the name “catch-22” is rather nonsensical. Where did it come from?

A: It first appeared in Joseph Heller’s 1961 book, Catch-22.

Q: Oh, where did it appear in that book?

A: Um, on the cover.

Q: No, I mean, what was the context?

A: The setting is World War II and in the book, “Catch-22” is a rule that describes a few different things including general military bureaucracy. The main plot sees the term introduced by an army psychiatrist to describe how if main character John Yossarian requests to be excused from dangerous fighter pilot missions on the grounds of insanity then he is clearly very sane to have thought up such a plan. 

Q: So, he could ask to be dismissed for being crazy, but if he did, there was a catch…

A: Yep. Described by the doctor in the book: “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.” Author Joseph Heller claims to have created it as a kind of manifestation of all the loopholes and quirks found in the military.

Q: Okay, but why 22 instead of any other number?

A: It’s actually because 22 is the combined Scrabble points total of the words “DIRE PARADOX”.

Q: Wow, really?

A: No, of course not – we just made that up.

Q: I hate you.

A: In fact, Heller admits there was NO reason for 22. He originally wanted to call the book “Catch-18” but then author Leon Uris’ book Mila 18 came out just a few months earlier – also about World War II.

Q: Wow, so if it weren’t for Mr Uris, we’d all be bemoaning things as being “catch-18s”?

A: That’s right! English is no doubt filled with many “sliding doors” moments like that.

Q: Another popular culture reference!

A: Yep. The 1998 Gwenyth Paltrow film Sliding Doors was largely forgettable. But it did give us the term “sliding doors moment” – when seemingly inconsequential moments alter the trajectory of future events. In the case of the film, it was two different outcomes depending on whether she had made the train on time (before the sliding doors closed). 

Q: So getting back to Catch-22, any idea what made him pick 22 once 18 was off the cards? Why not 19? Or 67? Or 14? Or 26?

A: Okay, you can stop listing numbers now.

Q: Sorry.

A: The decision for 22 was made by Heller and his publishers. According to reports, it was chosen simply because it sounded the best when said aloud. Clearly this was borne out, as it became a popular English idiom in quick time.

Q: Yeah, why do you think it caught on so fast?

A: It probably has a lot to do with there being so many real-world situations that see logic at odds with itself in contradictory ways. 

Q: So, is a “catch-22” the same as a “chicken & egg” or “no-win” situation?

A: Great question. They seem similar, but technically they’re all different. “Chicken & egg” is definitely a logistical headache, but not quite the same, as it refers solely to causality – one thing being dependent on the other. As for “no win” – well that’s just a statement that implies that all the options will result in a negative outcome; again, different to a catch-22.

Q: And one final question. Should it be “Catch-22” or “catch-22” with no capital? And hyphen or no hyphen?

A: The book was Catch-22, so that’s always the form you’d use (preferably in italics) when referring to that. As for the idiom, most dictionaries opt for lowercase “catch 22” or “catch-22” without a capital… although it’s also still common to see it with the capital!

Q: So, um, anything goes?

A: We definitely recommend opting for lowercase. As for hyphenating – just be consistent in your usage. For example, we prefer “catch-22” with the hyphen. You don’t need to use different forms for a noun (“that’s a catch-22”) versus an adjective (“it’s a catch-22 situation”).

Q: Thanks for that. Catch you later!

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