ca·​tas·​tro·​phe kə-ˈta-strə-(ˌ)fē How to pronounce catastrophe (audio)
plural catastrophes
: a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin
Deforestation and erosion can lead to an ecological catastrophe.
: utter failure : fiasco
the party was a catastrophe
: a violent and sudden change in a feature of the earth
: a violent usually destructive natural event (such as a supernova)
: the final event of the dramatic action especially of a tragedy
catastrophic adjective
catastrophically adverb

Did you know?

When English speakers first borrowed the Greek word katastrophē (from katastrephein, meaning "to overturn") as catastrophe in the 1500s, they used it for the conclusion or final event of a dramatic work, especially of a tragedy. In time, catastrophe came to be used more generally of any unhappy conclusion, or disastrous or ruinous end. By the mid-18th century, it was being used to denote truly devastating events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Finally, it came to be applied to things that are only figuratively catastrophic—burnt dinners, lost luggage, really bad movies, etc.

Examples of catastrophe in a Sentence

The oil spill was an environmental catastrophe. Experts fear a humanitarian catastrophe if food isn't delivered to the refugees soon. an area on the brink of catastrophe
Recent Examples on the Web The catastrophe now unfolding is a result of that pattern. Matthew Duss, Foreign Affairs, 27 Nov. 2023 The catastrophe of 1944 was certainly not its only eruption to coincide with portentous world events. Jeffrey Collins, WSJ, 24 Nov. 2023 The ensuing mental health crisis has given researchers a rare opportunity to gauge how an extraordinary event such as a public health catastrophe can physically affect the brains of teenagers. Gary Stix, Scientific American, 17 Nov. 2023 The summer catastrophe was the worst natural disaster in Hawaii's history and the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century. Eden Villalovas, Washington Examiner, 16 Nov. 2023 Suddenly, things begin to slip into surreality, as Sophie levitates and the whole tableau comes crashing down into the shards of a shattered glass patio table — while Paul observes the catastrophe from the passive middle distance. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, 15 Nov. 2023 The islanders – including Gregers, the only farmer and youngest of all – are stoically fighting off severe weather conditions and the risk of flooding, like survivors of a doomed refuge, waiting for the inevitable catastrophe to happen. Annika Pham, Variety, 13 Nov. 2023 It was found earlier this year among the personal belongings of a Canadian historian who lived in Nova Scotia, where recovery ships brought the remains of those who died in the catastrophe. Alex Sundby, CBS News, 13 Nov. 2023 Much of life involves keeping the balance between numbing and feeling, given the catastrophes that confront us. Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, 12 Nov. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'catastrophe.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Greek katastrophē, from katastrephein to overturn, from kata- + strephein to turn

First Known Use

1540, in the meaning defined at sense 4

Time Traveler
The first known use of catastrophe was in 1540


Dictionary Entries Near catastrophe

Cite this Entry

“Catastrophe.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


ca·​tas·​tro·​phe kə-ˈtas-trə-(ˌ)fē How to pronounce catastrophe (audio)
: a sudden disaster
: complete failure : fiasco
catastrophic adjective
catastrophically adverb

Medical Definition


ca·​tas·​tro·​phe kə-ˈtas-trə-fē How to pronounce catastrophe (audio)
: death (as from an inexplicable cause) before, during, or after an operation

More from Merriam-Webster on catastrophe

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