cat·​a·​lyst | \ ˈka-tə-ləst How to pronounce catalyst (audio) \

Definition of catalyst

1 : a substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible
2 : an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action That waterway became the catalyst of the area's industrialization. He was the catalyst in the native uprising.

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Word History of Catalyst

Catalyst is a fairly recent addition to the English language, first appearing at the start of the 20th century with its chemistry meaning. It was formed from the word catalysis, another chemistry term which refers to a modification and especially an increase in the rate of a chemical reaction induced by material unchanged chemically at the end of the reaction. By the 1940s, the figurative sense of catalyst was in use for someone or something that quickly causes change or action.

Examples of catalyst in a Sentence

The bombing attack was the catalyst for war. She was proud to be a catalyst for reform in the government.
Recent Examples on the Web This crisis was a catalyst, opening direct channels of communication from the board of directors down to the most junior person on our staff. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Looking back at 2020 in the arts: Leah Rosenthal: ‘We need to embrace what we’ve learned’," 27 Dec. 2020 Southlake Carroll, which has been without star quarterback Quinn Ewers, is no stranger to knocking out good teams in the playoffs, and Allen could be a catalyst for that again. Sean Collins, Dallas News, "5 running backs who could be difference-makers for Dallas-area playoff teams," 17 Dec. 2020 Samuel Getachew, 17, believes poetry can be a catalyst for change and can help people understand one another. New York Times, "In the Rising Voices of 10 Young Poets, a Call for Change," 9 Oct. 2020 In Hagerstown, activists hope the refurbished cabin will be a catalyst for change in one of the state’s oldest African American communities, a probable stop on the Underground Railroad. Washington Post, "A rediscovered log cabin showcases one of Maryland’s forgotten Black communities," 17 Sep. 2020 Let the work that still needs doing be a catalyst for hope, not despair. Edith Eger,, "I Survived The Holocaust. Here’s How To Hold Onto Hope Through Anything," 15 Sep. 2020 But James himself is not a catalyst for this kind of violence, Goldman said. Clara Hendrickson, Detroit Free Press, "Michigan GOP's John James linked to anti-semitism in ad from Jewish PAC," 12 Sep. 2020 White, 26, averaged a career-best 11.3 points last season, emerging as a catalyst of the Spurs’ success during an eight-game run in the Orlando, Fla, bubble. Jeff Mcdonald,, "Derrick White agrees to extension, signs up for Spurs’ rebuilding effort," 21 Dec. 2020 The legal offensive, despite the long odds, has served as a catalyst for the campaign to raise more than $200 million. Brent Kendall And Deanna Paul, WSJ, "Trump’s Challenges to Election Results Face End of the Legal Road," 10 Dec. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'catalyst.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of catalyst

1902, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for catalyst

see catalysis

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Time Traveler for catalyst

Time Traveler

The first known use of catalyst was in 1902

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Statistics for catalyst

Last Updated

17 Jan 2021

Cite this Entry

“Catalyst.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 21 Jan. 2021.

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More Definitions for catalyst


How to pronounce catalyst (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of catalyst

technical : a substance that causes a chemical reaction to happen more quickly
: a person or event that quickly causes change or action


cat·​a·​lyst | \ ˈkat-ᵊl-əst How to pronounce catalyst (audio) \

Medical Definition of catalyst

: a substance (as an enzyme) that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible

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