I have known for a long time that there is noun called “catch-22” in English. In some cases, I really would like to use it but I'm not sure if it is a well known term.

AFAIK, it is used when you are stuck between two things. For instance:

You can't get a job without any experience and you can't get any experience without a job. It is catch-22.

How widely is “catch-22” used?


It's the title of a classic Joseph Heller novel about World War II, published in 1961 and adapted for film in 1970. Heller invented the term to describe absurd, impossible-to-escape situations; he actually uses it rather loosely, so that it can cover almost anything. The main statement of the concept:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own 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 was 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.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

Some other examples:

Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.


Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.

Catch-22 is an enhanced version of the classic "Damned if you do, and damned if you don't."

Now, how widely known is the phrase? In the United States, very nearly universal - even among people who've never read or heard of the book and movie. In the rest of the English-speaking world? I have no idea...


Even if people don't fully understand "catch-22" they probably get that it means basically "to be stuck between a rock and a hard place".

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    +1 for explanation and the last paragraph. We know the book and have read it in the rest of the world, even the non-English speaking ;) – mplungjan May 15 '11 at 20:56
  • Purely out of curiosity, I wonder how many people use this term without knowing the book by Joseph Heller? A great example is also seen in the MAS*H character Klinger, whose attempts to act infirm merely underscore his rationality and are insufficient to warrant his discharge. – The Raven May 15 '11 at 21:02
  • @TheRaven, I suspect quite a lot. – Benjol May 16 '11 at 9:59
  • I'd say it's extremely common in the UK. Like any idiom, there are a proportion of malaprops who use it inappropriately. – Marcin Jun 5 '11 at 7:08
  • This is a good description of Catch-22, but not, I think, a good description of Hobson's choice. Hobson's choice is not a choice where both alternatives are undesirable, it is a "choice" which only admits one option, because the other is completely useless or unacceptable. Perhaps you were thinking of Sophie's choice? (Though I can't say that is an exact fit either.) – Nate Eldredge Aug 6 '12 at 3:45

Google NGrams shows "catch-22" flatlining, but "catch 22" has had some interesting play:

enter image description here

Nevertheless, a Google search for "catch-22" (which will be case insensitive and treating the hyphen as optional), shows 5,300,000 hits.

In my own experience it's a fairly common usage and well understood.


Actually, with the hyphen is preferred; Google Ngrams just needs the hyphen to be delimited by spaces:

enter image description here

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  • I think you meant ‘shows’! – rberaldo May 15 '11 at 20:37
  • @Rafael Beraldo: You're right, I did. Thanks for the heads-up. – Robusto May 15 '11 at 20:38
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    That's just some quirkiness with NGrams. Any phrase with a hyphen in it flatlines. – Jeff Burka May 16 '11 at 2:21

I know this term but I have never used it.

I prefer to use the word "deadlock" for most of the so-called "catch-22" situations.

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  • A true catch-22 is a paradox, while the example given might be said to be a deadlock. The difference is the element of time. – Ben Voigt May 15 '11 at 23:29
  • True. Now I know the reason why someone vote down this answer. – Jamie May 16 '11 at 0:10

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