For those who don’t know, a Catch-22 is “a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first”.
“Catch-22″ was coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel, Catch-22, which is set during WWII in Italy. In this story, “Catch-22″ is a military bureaucratic rule invoked in several places (sometimes explicitly and sometimes not), and is more or less a catch-all rule to justify anything. For instance, in one example in the book, army MP’s are harassing some women and justify it with the Catch-22 rule. When asked about how Catch-22 makes their actions acceptable, one of the MP’s states: “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.”
The rule is explicitly explained by the narrator in chapter 5 of the book:
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 (one of the men trying to get out of flying missions) 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 (one of the other men trying to get out of flying missions) 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….
Yossarian strode away, cursing Catch-22 vehemently even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up.
Using “Catch-22″ to describe no-win situations ultimately caught on after the 1970 movie, Catch-22, came out, based on the book. Interestingly, the phrase was almost “Catch-18″, but the historical fiction, Mila 18, also set in WWII, was published not long before and Heller’s publisher decided it would be confusing for people to have two such WWII books with “18″ on the end released so close together, so made him change it to “22″.