What Does "Catch as Catch Can" Mean?

Jim B.

"Catch as catch can" is an English idiom that means that something must be accomplished by any method possible. If a job or task is described in this manner, it may hint at a lack of planning on the part of the person doing it. The implication is that the way in which something is achieved is not as important as whether it gets done. This phrase gets its origins from the sport of wrestling, where a match without any restrictions on the types of holds that may be used is called a "catch as catch can" match.

A wrestling match with no restrictions on the holds that may be employed is known as a "catch as catch can" match.
A wrestling match with no restrictions on the holds that may be employed is known as a "catch as catch can" match.

An idiom is a short expression or phrase that may not mean what the words it contains suggest based on their literal definitions. Instead, an idiom can gain its meaning over time from the way it is used in a culture, even if this meaning has little to no connection to its literal origins. Using such phrases allows speakers to add some color and impact to their conversations with others. One such idiom is the phrase "catch as catch can."

"Catch as catch can" means getting something done in whatever way possible; the final result is all that matters.
"Catch as catch can" means getting something done in whatever way possible; the final result is all that matters.

Basically, the phrase means that a person doing something can take many different avenues to getting it done. As long as the thing gets done, though, it doesn't really matter what method was used. In this way, the phrase suggests that a person should be concerned with the results first and foremost rather than the means. For example, someone might say, "It was pretty much a catch as catch can job, but even though it was an unorthodox method, we got it done."

There is also often a connotation attached to this phrase that suggests that a job might have been done with little planning or foresight. When used in this way, the phrase implies that the people doing the job simply put their heads down and went to work until they were finished. As a result, the effort may not have been as efficient as it could have been, but it was nonetheless effective. Using this context, consider the sentence, "I built that deck with no instructions; it was pretty much catch as catch can."

In the sport of wrestling, the two combatants try to wrap each other up in a series of different holds. Many types of wrestling only allow certain types of holds, but "catch as catch can" wrestling has no such restraints. As a result, this phrase is often closely associated with the phrase "no holds barred," which also comes from wrestling.

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Discussion Comments


Origin of some idioms are so complicated. My English instructor was talking about the catch as catch can origin yesterday. He said that it's not known for sure whether this idiom really came from wrestling or from somewhere else. Apparently, there are some known uses of it in relation to love and romance.

For example, it was used to talk about men who are always flirting with women. It was said that they woo women catch as catch can. And this idiom is unbelievably old. Some of the literature date back to the 1600s, even late 1500s! Can you believe it? I would have never expected this idiom to have been around for so long.


@anamur-- I think you've got it but I don't think that "catch as catch can" implies anything about something being done fairly or not. It's just talking about getting something done in whichever way it is possible.

It doesn't necessarily have to be about methods either. You could be low on supplies for a homework project for example. And getting the homework done catch as catch can would mean that you will complete it with whichever supplies you can get hold of. So it might be about not having all the means but managing the situation regardless.


I came across this idiom recently in a novel and had absolutely no idea what it meant. Not until I read the connection to wrestling here that it's making more sense to me. Although, I'm still a bit confused about the part of the "catch as catch can" definition that says "any method possible."

What exactly does that mean? Does it mean that people should use whichever means necessary, whether fair or not, to accomplish something?

I'm guessing it means something like this since it's originally talking about a form of wrestling where there were no rules. So wrestlers could use whichever moves they wanted to beat their opponent. Kind of like "all is fair game."

Did I understand this idiom correctly or am I completely off?

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