What Does Playing Catch Up Mean?

Playing Catch Up Meaning

Definition: To be behind schedule or below average and trying to reach the deadline or the average.

Origin of Playing Catch Up

Digital records indicate that this expression originated around the 1950s. However, the earlier, shorter catch up, in the sense of overtake, dates back to the 1800s.

It is unclear exactly why the verb play became part of this idiom. Some sources speculate that it comes from sports such as football, in which the team with the lower score is playing extremely hard in order to surpass the score of the other team.

Nowadays, the idiom playing catch up has no connotation of involving a game. It simply means trying to catch up.

Examples of Playing Catch Up

catch up thesaurusTwo friends are discussing the difficulties that one of them has been experiencing at work.

Dan: How is your new job going?

Kira: It’s still pretty bad. Everyone else has so much experience. By comparison, I seem like an idiot. I never know what is going on.

Dan: Don’t worry. Everyone has an adjustment period when starting a new job.

Kira: Thanks. I guess that’s true. However, I’m spending all my time playing catch up. I never have time for innovation or creative thought. All my efforts are going into trying to keep up with the others by doing the bare minimum.

catch up synonymThe following example involves two women who are taking a self-defense class together.

Gertrude: I’m so glad that you agreed to take these judo classes with me. They’re so much fun, aren’t they?

Ruby: Yes! They’re fun, but everyone else in the class has been doing judo for so much longer than me. I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know what she is doing.

Gertrude: We all felt the same way when we started. Everyone has to play catch up for the first month or so. After that, you’ll feel like you are at the same level as the rest of us.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about large food companies that are buying smaller ones in an effort to increase profits with new products that seem healthier, or that seem to be of higher quality.

  • “These companies are playing catch-up, is what it is. They’re trying to get on the right side of these trends. … A desperate time is leading to desperate measures,” said Bob Goldin, partner at Pentallect, a Chicago-based strategic consulting firm for food companies. –Chicago Tribune

This excerpt is from an article about the European stock market.

  • At 1000 GMT, the pan-European STOXX 600 rose 0.6 percent to 397.43 points, a level last seen in August 2015. Some of that was down to Germany’s DAX index which, playing catch-up after Tuesday’s holiday, jumped 1.3 percent to hit a fresh record high. –New York Times


The phrase to play catch up is another way to say to try to overtake.