Catch 22

I've been saying it for years. The phrase entered my vocabulary when I graduated from Uni and needed 'experience' to get a job, but a job to gain experience. In a specified field like advertising creative and strategy there really aren't many ways to gain 2 years experience unless you intern, or somehow manage to freelance your way in to a decent client list. I opted for the latter and walked out reasonably unscathed.

The term 'catch 22' often comes up in conversation when describing a redundant solution to a problem. When an outcome is only achieved by a course of action that makes it redundant, or vice versa. A catch 22 is a double negative, like a zoo - animals can be observed, appreciated and 'conserved' but are held captive.

So where does the phrase come from?

Joseph Heller, an American story-maker born in 1923, first coined the term in his classic novel Catch 22 was published in 1961. Heller reflects and embellishes upon his own experience in the Airforce (he piloted over 60 combat missions), through the voice of protagonist Joseph Yossarian. In the novel, Yossarian entices the reader as an accomplice to his schemes to get out of service, schemes foiled by the clever administrators who often see them as grounds to promote him.

Joseph Heller in the middle with his bomber crewmates in Corsica, 1944. Image source -

Joseph Heller in the middle with his bomber crewmates in Corsica, 1944.

Image source -

'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 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.'  - p52

Since being coined by Heller in the 1960’s the phrase has gone on to become a standard part of English spoken vocabulary. Heller invented the term, I believe, to be used only when a particularly absurd type of pickle presents itself. This specific application of the phrase is important in order to pay homage to his wonderful addition to language, so keep in mind the difference between a simple paradox and le catch de Yossarian. Interestingly, the number 22 was attached to the phrase after 3 alternatives (11, 17 and 18) were avoided as they were already used in titles for popular film and literary releases of the time (including the 1960, original Oceans 11, which trumps the George Clooney version).

So next time you find yourself presented with an absurd problem in conversation, think of Heller and his fly-boy antics.

If you want to grab a copy of his classic book - Here’s a link to a digital copy or the audiobook.

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