ca·​tas·​tro·​phe | \ kə-ˈta-strə-(ˌ)fē How to pronounce catastrophe (audio) \
plural catastrophes

Definition of catastrophe

1 : a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin Deforestation and erosion can lead to an ecological catastrophe.
2 : utter failure : fiasco the party was a catastrophe
3a : a violent and sudden change in a feature of the earth
b : a violent usually destructive natural event (such as a supernova)
4 : the final event of the dramatic action especially of a tragedy

Keep scrolling for more

Other Words from catastrophe

catastrophic \ ˌka-​tə-​ˈsträ-​fik How to pronounce catastrophic (audio) \ adjective
catastrophically \ ˌka-​tə-​ˈsträ-​fi-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce catastrophically (audio) \ adverb

Did You Know?

When English speakers first borrowed the Greek word catastrophe in the 1500s, they used it for the conclusion or final event of a dramatic work, especially of a tragedy. By the early 1600s, "catastrophe" was being used more generally of any generally unhappy conclusion or disastrous or ruinous end. By the 18th century, "catastrophe" had come 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
See More
Recent Examples on the Web Now gene banks the world over share a common repository, a sort of fail-safe against a catastrophe like Syria’s civil war. Matt Simon, Wired, "These Rare Seeds Escaped Syria's War—to Help Feed the World," 17 Nov. 2020 With a catastrophe of one kind or another closing in on the Trojans, a welcome perspective was offered by coach Clay Helton. Dylan Hernández Columnist, Los Angeles Times, "Column: USC wins ugly again, but Clay Helton’s sunny attitude is right perspective," 14 Nov. 2020 McElrath co-authored a commentary in The Lancet last month that raised concerns about using Ad5 as a vehicle for COVID-19 vaccines, because it was linked to a catastrophe in an HIV vaccine study 13 years ago. Jon Cohen, Science | AAAS, "Russia’s claim of a successful COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t pass the ‘smell test,’ critics say," 11 Nov. 2020 But that catastrophe looks different in Lethem’s vision. Washington Post, "Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Arrest’ imagines a kinder, gentler apocalypse," 10 Nov. 2020 That this is possible but not inevitable should be one obvious lesson of an election that has turned out to be neither a victory nor a catastrophe. The Editors, National Review, "Biden’s Empty Victory," 7 Nov. 2020 The firm estimated that catastrophe losses tallied $990 million, pretax, up from $510 million in the year-earlier quarter. Leslie Scism, WSJ, "Allstate, MetLife Report Mixed Results as Pandemic Continues," 4 Nov. 2020 The basic plot is that of a foreboding dream—walls closing in, beast poised to pounce—from which the dreamer awakes just before catastrophe strikes. Andrew Delbanco, The New York Review of Books, "Night Terrors," 3 Nov. 2020 Brian Larue and Eric Murray each received several misdemeanor charges and three felony charges, including possession of weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy, and risking a catastrophe. N'dea Yancey-bragg, USA TODAY, "2 charged after van full of explosives found in Philadelphia amid Walter Wallace protests," 30 Oct. 2020

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

See More

First Known Use of catastrophe

1540, in the meaning defined at sense 4

History and Etymology for catastrophe

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about catastrophe

Time Traveler for catastrophe

Time Traveler

The first known use of catastrophe was in 1540

See more words from the same year

Listen to Our Podcast about catastrophe

Statistics for catastrophe

Last Updated

20 Nov 2020

Cite this Entry

“Catastrophe.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 25 Nov. 2020.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for catastrophe


How to pronounce catastrophe (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of catastrophe

: a terrible disaster


ca·​tas·​tro·​phe | \ kə-ˈta-strə-fē How to pronounce catastrophe (audio) \

Kids Definition of catastrophe

1 : a sudden disaster The oil spill was an environmental catastrophe.
2 : complete failure : fiasco The party was a catastrophe.


ca·​tas·​tro·​phe | \ kə-ˈtas-trə-fē How to pronounce catastrophe (audio) \

Medical Definition of catastrophe

: death (as from an inexplicable cause) before, during, or after an operation

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on catastrophe

What made you want to look up catastrophe? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


Test Your Vocabulary

A Thanksgiving Word Quiz

  • a traditional thanksgiving dinner
  • November comes from a word for which of the following numbers?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!