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February 27, 2003 - Listener Mail - 2003-02-27

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": February 27, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- we catch up with some listener mail.

RS: ... starting with Azmul Haque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who writes: "We catch so many things, but what is the meaning of a 'Catch 22 situation'?"

AA: It's true. We catch a ball, catch a fish, catch a cold. But here's what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say about "Catch 22": 1. A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.

RS: 2. A situation or predicament characterized by absurdity or senselessness.

AA: And 3. A contradictory or self-defeating course of action.

RS: The expression comes from a book published in 1961, the war novel "Catch 22" by the late author Joseph Heller. Heller himself flew many bombing missions during World War Two. The main character in his book is a flier named Yossarian.

AA: Yossarian is obsessed with the fear of dying and doesn't want to fly anymore. He's angry that his commander -- hoping for a promotion to general -- keeps raising the number of missions his unit must fly.

RS: Here's the scene from the 1970 movie "Catch 22" in which Yossarian -- played by actor Alan Arkin -- appeals to a military doctor to ground him:

YOSSARIAN: I'm crazy!

DOCTOR: "Who says so?"

YOSSARIAN: "Ask anybody. Ask Nately, Dobbs -- hey, Orr, Orr, tell him.

ORR: "Tell him what?"

YOSSARIAN: "Am I crazy?"

ORR: "He's crazy, doc. He won't fly with me. I take good care of him, but he won't. He's crazy, all right."

YOSSARIAN: "Is Orr crazy?"

DOCTOR: "Of course he is. He has to be if he keeps flying after all the close calls he's had."

YOSSARIAN: "Then why can't you ground him."

DOCTOR: "I can but first he has to ask me."

YOSSARIAN: "That's all he's got to do to be grounded."

DOCTOR: "That's all."

YOSSARIAN: "Then you can ground him?"

DOCTOR: "No, then I cannot ground him. There's a catch."

YOSSARIAN: "A catch?"

DOCTOR: "Sure, Catch 22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn't really crazy, so I can't ground him."

YOSSARIAN: "OK, let me see if I got this straight. In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy anymore and I have to keep flying."

DOCTOR: "You got it -- that's Catch 22."

YOSSARIAN: That's some catch, that Catch 22.

DOCTOR: "The best there is."

RS: And the same could be said for the expression itself. It caught on during the 1960s as many Americans opposed their country's involvement in the Vietnam War.

AA: Azmul Haque in Dhaka also asks another question: What's the meaning of "huffing and puffing."

RS: That's simple: Imagine yourself doing something really strenuous -- like shoveling all that snow we've been having here in Washington. Your heart races, You start breathing heavily, so heavily that it's hard to talk. That's huffing and puffing.

AA: Next, a question from Helen Wong in the Chinese city of Wuhan. She would like to know what "second-guess" means, as used in this sentence: "While the court was skeptical about the wisdom of the copyright extension, seven justices believed it was not their role to second-guess [Congress]." When you "second-guess" someone else's decision, it means you presume to know better.

RS: It's not a positive expression, since it's hard to imagine many people would appreciate being second-guessed.

AA: Song Xiaolu in Shanghai has this question: "Why do American women like to call a man a 'beefcake' or 'stud muffin' if he is well-built with muscles? Why 'cake' and 'muffin'?"

RS: After all, cakes and muffins are baked goods. Well, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates "beefcake" back to 1949. The term started out to describe -- quote -- "photographs or motion pictures of partially clad muscular men." It was suggested by the existing term "cheesecake" to describe pictures of women.

AA: As for "studmuffin," the Dictionary of American Slang by the late Robert Chapman dates that term to students in the 1980s, and defined as "an attractive young man." But "stud" by itself was in use as a term of virility by the early 1900s.

AA: Now here's another question, from a listener by the e-mail address of Marshield: "What does 'a flip answer' mean?" For that we turn to a special guest:

ANU GARG: "A flip answer is something irreverent or something which is not serious. You might give a flip answer to a question when you are not really wanting to give a serious answer."

RS: That's Anu Garg, the man behind the internationally popular online service called A.Word.A.Day. You'll hear lots more words next Thursday when he's our guest on Wordmaster.

AA: Our programs are on the Web at And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.