Catch-22 and other phrases

Catch-novel, book cover22. From the 1961 novel, it is a paradox where the solution is self-defeating. The terms contradict the result. The phrase is so successful in encapsulating the absurdity that the novel strives for that we now use it as an idiomatic phrase in everyday English. The novel was made into a film, a theatre performance and a TV pilot, and there’s a ska band named after it. It has remained in print since 1961, and sold over 10 million copies. There are countless reviews out there already (this one is especially good), so I won’t go into that. Instead, as a celebration of Catch-22, here’s a list of some similar other phrases and their origins:

Cadmean Victory

To achieve victory that ultimately brings about defeat. From Greek mythology, story has it that poor Cadmus founded the city of Thebes. Naturally, a city needs water, and the most logical way to get it is from the local water-dragon. So Cadmus sent all his people out to fight the water-dragon for the water it guarded, and they all died in the course of defeating it. Cadmus got water for the city, but there weren’t any people left to make it a city. (Well, supposedly five survived…that’s more of a hamlet)

Pyrrhic Victory

Similar to the Cadmean Victory, the Pyrrhic Victory implies that the victory will come at such a cost that it will lead to ruin. When King Pyrrhus defeated the Romans, they were better equipped to absorb the losses. He knew he might fight and defeat them again, but it would ultimately leave him with no more men.

Cornelian Dilemma

The classic no-win situation, where you have to choose between two detrimental options. A bit like the game Would you rather…? It’s named after Pierre Cornielle, due to the dilemma in his 1636 play Le Cid. The central character, Rodrigue, must choose between the love of his girlfriend and the honour of avenging his father. And of course, choosing the latter means she tries to have him killed.

A more modern variant is Sophie’s Choice, named after the 1979 novel by William Styron. In the story, Sophie has to make a very difficult decision that will ultimately ruin her life. But that would be a spoiler.

Morton’s Fork

Similar to the Cornelian Dilemma, Morton’s Fork is a choice with two unpleasant results, but can also be two lines of reasoning that lead to the same conclusion. The name comes from 15th Century archbishop John Morton, who said a man living modestly should be able to save to pay taxes, whilst a man living extravagantly was obviously rich enough to afford taxes. Everyone wins!

Buridan’s Ass

Near an opposite to Morton’s Fork, Buridan’s Ass is a paradox where the inability to choose between two beneficial options leads to demise. A hungry, thirsty ass stuck between water and food bases its choice in distance. As the options are equidistant, it cannot choose and dies. It’s named after 14th Century French philosopher Jean Buridan, whose moral determinism satirised it, but the analogy was around in antiquity, as found in Aristotle.

Hobson’s Choice

A choice where you only have one option – ‘take it or leave it’. Named after Thomas Hobson, an English stable owner. Hobson owned a large stable, with a lot of good horses, giving the appearance of a large selection. But in order to rotate the use of his horses, he only allowed customers to choose from one stall – they could have that horse, or take a hike.


A situation where taking action puts you at a disadvantage. This comes from less exciting origins, a German chess term coined in the 19th Century. It refers to those niggling times in chess when you have to make a move, which will ultimately lead to a concession, and you’d rather just stay put.

One thought on “Catch-22 and other phrases

  1. Pingback: The art of novel titles

Leave a Reply