Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Catch 22

Is the phrase “Catch 22” part of your vocabulary? It is mine. I wonder how many of us use it but don't know where it originated.

Well, perhaps most people of the baby-boomer generation know where the term originated, but the phrase is popular with many of the young set as well.
Fifty years ago, this new phrase began to make its way into American conversations: "Catch-22." Joseph Heller's irreverent World War II novel — named for the now-famous paradox — was published on Oct. 11, 1961. His take on war meshed perfectly with the anti-authoritarian generation that came of age in the 1960s. And half a century later, the predicament of a “no-win trap” still resonates with a new crop of young people distrustful of their elders.

The following information is from National Public Radio:

In August 1944, Heller flew on a mission over the French town of Avignon. Sitting in the plexiglass nose cone of a B-25 bomber, Heller faced the very real possibility of death for the first time. That mission, says Heller biographer Tracy Daugherty, shaped the way Heller thought about war, a sensibility that permeates his novel.
"After that mission over Avignon, Heller really understood that this is not an abstraction," Daugherty says. "They are out to kill me personally, and he didn't like it — and Yossarian, Heller’s creation in the novel, doesn't either."
Yossarian an everyman soldier who is trying as hard as he can to get out of the war. But the more he tries, the more he is caught in the famous catch: "Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy," Doc Daneeka, the Army physician, explains.
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. [Bomber pilot] Or 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.
When Catch-22 was first released, it wasn't universally well-received. Until then, books about war tended to be serious works, often tragic in tone. Heller's war was a black comedy, filled with orders from above that made no sense and characters who just wanted to stay alive. The novel seemed to offend some reviewers. The New York Times called it an "emotional hodgepodge." But other critics took on the book as a cause.
By the time Catch-22 came out in paperback, the word of mouth was more positive than negative and the book became a best-seller. But Daugherty says it was more than just the praise of critics that turned the tide in its favor.
"Really what turned the tide I think was that the Vietnam War began to heat up and was more and more in the news, and Heller's book seemed to prophesy what was happening," she says.
The young people who took to the streets to protest the war embraced Catch-22. Heller may have based the novel on his own experiences in World War II, but the voice that emerged captured the tone of a new generation that had lost respect for authority and refused to take anything at face value.
"What was being stated publicly [in the mid-1960s] was clashing so obviously with the images we were seeing on our television screens," Daugherty says. "And so I think in a large sense, the entire culture began to distrust language. We were being told one thing and seeing another, and there's the paradox. That's the heart of Catch-22."
Catch-22 is a concept everyone can understand. That's why it so quickly became part of the language — a phrase to be called upon when there seems no way out of the traps life can set for you and when humor really is the best response. And that is why the book has endured.
Is the phrase “Catch-22” part of your vocabulary? Have you read the book? I read it years ago and now I want to read it again!


  1. Haven't read the book but use the phrase often. Now I know what it means and may use it even more as I seem to be in these traps of life a lot.

    1. Yes, we do run into a great many of those "damned if you do; damned if you don't" scenarios!

  2. My first cat was named Yossarian. I can't count the number of times my husband and I have turned to each other and said "Major Major Major Major" when we find someone predestined for a certain way of life by their parents, even if they have a normal name.
    I recently learned to play a new, somewhat complicated games, in a relaxed social setting, but with a fiercely competitive woman who used to always win before I moved to town. Both my mother and my husband admonished me for doing this, since they described it as a Catch 22 - I knew just enough that I would win, but not enough to engineer the outcome so this other woman would win instead, and stay friendly. A disaster, but unlike the Catch 22's in the book, one I could have avoided.

    1. Hi Beryl, those are two hilarious stories! Having a cat named Yossarian! Yours and your husbands code of repeating, "Major Major Major Major" made me remember the chapter by that title in the book. Love it! Also your game story. What game would that be?

    2. It was Mah Jongg, and I love it. I have been playing for two weeks and can now lose when I want to, but it's so hard, that I can't always win. Great fun!

  3. Never heard about this before. Thank you for the information.

    1. Hi Mette, maybe it was just in the U.S. that the phrase caught on. It's used here all the time!

  4. Oh,now I know! have used it when it started to be used here,10/15yrs ago in business.

    Sanda love your informative posts. Ida

    1. Hello Ida,
      Interesting how phrases catch on. So many others from movies, for instance, such as, "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,"
      from The Godfather, Part 2. Or "We'll always have Paris," from Casablanca!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...