When Nurse Duckett informed Yossarian in Catch-22 that the Brass was planning to "disappear" Dunbar, Yossarian replied that "It doesn't make sense. It isn't even good grammar. What the hell does it mean when they disappear somebody?" This strongly suggests that this use of the verb "to disappear" wasn't in popular use at the time that the book was written (or that, if it was, Joseph Heller wasn't aware of it).

Was this the first use of the term, or did Catch-22 merely popularize it?

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    Does use by magicians count? The OED gives "1949 Amer. Speech ... The magician may speak of disappearing or vanishing a card."
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 22, 2017 at 17:38
  • @PeterShor That's definitely relevant - so evidently the book didn't technically invent the usage. Do you know if Joseph Heller just wasn't aware of that (or if it hadn't entered popular use yet)? (The reason I ask is the fact that Yossarian seemed baffled by the usage and considered it "bad grammar"). Aug 22, 2017 at 18:55
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    I suspect disappearing a card was a common usage among magicians, but relatively unknown to the rest of the population.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 22, 2017 at 18:56
  • @PeterShor That seems to make sense. Aug 22, 2017 at 18:58
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    @PeterShor The point isn't that Heller would have read the 1897 Chemical News, the point is that the transitive sense of "disappear" was in the language by 1897. Of course the OED citations are just the tip of the iceberg, most instances of that usage would have been in conversation or in documents not read by OED citation hunters. By the way Lafferty used the noun "disappearer" (an artifact used to make things disappear) in a story published in March of 1962; I suppose he could possibly have been influenced by Catch-22 but it seems unlikely.
    – user14111
    Aug 23, 2017 at 0:04

1 Answer 1


The comments give several examples of its use prior to the publication of Catch-22. It's difficult to know the extent to which Heller was aware of these, but at a minimum, he technically wasn't the inventor of the term.

@PeterShor mentioned the OED citation "1949 Amer. Speech ... The magician may speak of disappearing or vanishing a card." @user14111 also mentioned "1897 Chem. News 19 Mar. 143 We progressively disappear the faces of the dodecahedron."

It's quite possible that Heller thought that he invented the term. On the one hand, he had degrees in English and taught English in college, so presumably would've been aware of the existence of the OED; that being said, it's possible that he had read the entry.

The fact that Yossarian was baffled by the use and insisted that the word made no sense in its context would suggest that the characters didn't know about the usage, and possibly that the author didn't, either. While that technically doesn't prove the point, I think that the most likely explanation is that Heller simply didn't know about other usages and thought that he was inventing the phrase (which he technically didn't). It wouldn't be the first time he invented (or tried to invent) terms, either.

TL;DR Heller didn't technically invent the usage, but it's quite possible (even perhaps likely) that he thought that he did. Either way, the book was instrumental in popularizing the usage.

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