Catch 22

Like turning on the TV to find out why the power’s off.

Dear Word Detective: What does “Catch 22″ actually mean? — Faith Daniels.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays ….

Oh hi! I was just brushing up on my Macbeth and thinking about your question. I knew I had answered it before, and not too long ago, I thought. Then I discovered that “not too long ago” was circa 1995. Gosh. On the other hand, intimations of mortality aside, I’m glad you asked it, because in the intervening years no one else has, and it’s an interesting story.

I’m not sure that you meant to, but you’ve asked your question in an intriguing way. The “actual meaning” of “Catch 22″ seems to be undergoing some dilution in the mass media these days. A recent article in The Times of India was titled “Catch 22: Caught between mother and wife,” and offered some rather retrograde and sitcom-ish advice to men having trouble achieving domestic balance (e.g., “Do not praise the one’s cooking in front of the other”). Elsewhere in the media, “Tibetan MPs caught in a ‘Catch-22′ situation” (Indian Express) outlines some difficulties posed by the Dalai Lama’s recent decision to retire. One article describes a possible conflict, the other assesses an apparent impasse, but neither situation fits the original definition of a “Catch 22.”

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “Catch 22″ means “a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating; a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first.” One example that popped into my mind when I first explained “Catch 22″ was needing to have a driver’s license in order to get to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take your driver’s license exam. Another was needing to be rich in order to hire enough lawyers, etc., to avoid paying taxes and be rich. Although “Catch 22″ has come to be used in a more general sense to mean “an absurd predicament” or “a tricky and frustrating rule or restriction” (such as having to pay taxes on money you withdraw from your retirement fund to use to pay taxes), the true “Catch 22″ presents not just an annoying impediment, but a solid brick wall.

“Catch 22″ is one of those rare colloquial phrases whose origin is known with absolute certainty. It was coined by the American novelist Joseph Heller in 1961 as the title of his novel “Catch 22,” based on his experiences as a US bomber pilot in Europe in World War II. The central character in the book is the B-25 bombardier Yossarian, whose all-too-accurate perception of the futility and insanity of war introduces him to what Heller dubbed “Catch 22″ (“catch” being used here in the sense of a “snag” or “hidden trap” in military regulations). As Heller explains it, “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 [an especially hapless pilot] 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.”

“Catch 22″ the novel was a huge hit in the 1960s, and remains one of the seminal late 20th century works of literature. The phrase “Catch 22″ immediately entered the lexicon of a society beset by an increasingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy (“His Public Interest Group now finds itself in a Catch 22 situation. It cannot prove the device works without EPA funds, but EPA won’t grant the funds unless they prove the device works,” 1974), a plague of institutional illogic that computers have only worsened. Interestingly, the “22″ in the title was not Heller’s original choice; an early excerpt of the novel published in a magazine was actually titled “Catch 18,” but the publication of the very popular novel “Mila 18″ by Leon Uris during the same period necessitated the change to “Catch 22.”

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