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Catch-22

A Catch-22 is a situation in which paradoxical rules make a desired outcome impossible to achieve. It comes from Joseph Heller’s 1961 World War II novel, Catch-22, in which a bomber pilot wishes to get out of flying missions by claiming to be insane, but cannot do so because asking not to fly more missions would be a sign that he is sane. In the book, the bureaucratic clause behind this logic is Catch-22.

Most publications capitalize the C and hyphenate Catch-22. This is safest, as it follows the novel’s title and the way Heller uses the term throughout his book. There are a few common variations, though—including catch-22, catch 22, and Catch 22. Whichever one you use, it doesn’t need to be in quotation marks.


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Examples

So it’s a Catch-22: You can’t get hired unless you have experience; but you can’t get experience unless you’re hired. [Washington Post]

It’s a catch-22 for the budding researcher: Study long enough to make your big breakthrough, and you’ll find you’re too old to do so. [quoted in Globe and Mail]

Huntsman is the latest embodiment of the classic Catch-22 of partisan politics””the candidate most likely to win a general election has the hardest time winning the nomination. [Daily Beast]

But I feel like I’m in a Catch 22 situation. If I stop having sex with him, I’m throwing him back to her. If I do carry on, it’s like nothing has changed. [The Sun]

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Comments

  1. reardensteel says:

    No-win and chicken-egg situations are not the same as a Catch-22, strictly speaking.

    The fact that you need a chicken to get an egg, and an egg to get a chicken creates a logistical impasse, but it’s not a Catch-22. After all, if you could get your hands on either a chicken or an egg, everything would be fine.

    In a no-win situation, you’ll be screwed if you do A, and equally screwed in a different way if you do B. There’s not necessarily any causal relationship between A and B.

    In a Catch-22, the one thing must cause or negate the other thing. I also think the regulatory aspect is important. So if the rules were changed, the situation would not exist.

    This is all very subtle, but I think these things are distinct.

    I think in most marriages there is an unspoken Catch-22 imposed by the wife:
    1. I will have sex only if your love for me is completely unselfish (i.e. not motivated by sexual desire, which is equated with selfishness);
    2. If you initiate sex, it demonstrates your sexual desire (i.e. your selfishness);
    3. Therefore you can only have sex when you do not seek it

    That’s just my take on things.

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