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.

Example Sentences

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 Negotiators are racing to beat a deadline of June 1, which is when the Treasury Department has said the U.S. could begin defaulting on its debts for the first time in history and risk a financial catastrophe. Lisa Mascaro, Fortune, 17 May 2023 Those who have toiled at the heart of the current catastrophe are already looking ahead to the next, seeking to learn from what went wrong and prepare for an unknowable pathogen that could strike tomorrow, or two years from now, or 50 years in the future. Jessica Bartlett,, 13 May 2023 Once those measures are exhausted, however, the country will be forced to default on its current loans, triggering an economic catastrophe. Rafi Schwartz, The Week, 11 May 2023 Sri Lanka and Lebanon are other countries that have been severely impacted by economic catastrophes, including unstable food systems and effects of the war in Ukraine. Clarisa Diaz, Quartz, 5 May 2023 But the book is infused with a generosity of spirit and genuine humility borne of facing a catastrophe. Marianne Szegedy-maszak, Washington Post, 13 Apr. 2023 In a 2018 study, authors said a collapse was at least decades away but would be a catastrophe. Doyle Rice, USA TODAY, 11 Apr. 2023 Then, in a catastrophe that began in Wuhan, a Chinese city 1,500 miles away, the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, becoming a terrifying case study in how a single virus of uncertain origin can spread exponentially. David Willman And Joby Warrick, Anchorage Daily News, 11 Apr. 2023 Climate advocates likely see this as an opportunity to leverage finance as a tool to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy and prevent a climate catastrophe. Chris Carosa, Forbes, 27 Mar. 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 30 May. 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

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

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