Man is a creature who lives not by bread alone, but principally by catchwords.
R.L. Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque (Part II), 1881
Friends-and others-have often asked me, 'What the devil is a catch phrase?' I don't know. But I do know that my sympathy lies with the lexicographers.
Consult the standard dictionaries, the best and the greatest: you will notice that they tacitly admit the impossibility of precise definition. Perhaps cravenly, I hope that the following brief 'wafflings' will be reinforced by the willingness of readers to allow that 'example is better than precept' and thus enable me to 'get away with it'. A pen-friend, who has, for thirty years or more, copiously contributed both slang terms, on the one hand, and catch phrases (not, of course, necessarily slangy) on the other, tells me that the best definition he has seen is this: 'A catch phrase is a phrase that has caught on, and pleases the populace.' I'll go along with that, provided these substitutions be accepted: 'saying' for 'phrase'; and 'public' for the tendentious 'populace'.
Frequently, catch phrases are not, in the grammarians' sense, phrases at all, but sentences. Catch phrases, like the closely linked proverbial sayings, are self-contained, as, obviously, clichés are too. Catch phrases are usually more pointed and 'human' than clichés, although the former sometimes arise from, and often they generate, the latter. Occasionally, catch phrases stem from too famous quotations. Catch phrases often supply-indeed they are-conversational gambits; often, too, they add a pithy, perhaps earthy, comment. Apart from the unavoidable 'he-she' and 'we-you-they' conveniences, they are immutable. You will have perceived that the categories Catch Phrase, Proverbial Saying, Famous Quotations, Cliché, may co-exist: they are not snobbishly exclusive, any one of any other. All depends on the context, the nuance, the tone.
Precepts mystify: examples clarify. Here, in roughly chronological order, are a few catch phrases.
The proverbial no one can say black is my eye developed, probably late in the sixteenth century, into the catch phrase, black is-later, black's-your eye, you're at fault, you're guilty, whence black's the white of my eye, a nautical protestation of innocence. Nor is this catch phrase entirely extinct.
I'll have your guts for garters, a threat originally serious, but in late nineteenth to