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

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Other Words from catastrophe

catastrophic \ ˌka-​tə-​ˈsträ-​fik How to pronounce catastrophe (audio) \ adjective
catastrophically \ ˌka-​tə-​ˈsträ-​fi-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce catastrophe (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
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Recent Examples on the Web Lincoln Center also will bring its commitment to civic and community service to Restart Stages, supporting communities that have been hardest-hit by the virus and resulting economic catastrophe. Jane Levere, Forbes, "Manhattan’s Lincoln Center To Launch Outdoor Performing Arts Center In April, Livestreaming Some Events," 27 Feb. 2021 The nation is in the throes of an epic catastrophe, one that has had a profound impact on all segments of daily life, including the cultural sector. Los Angeles Times, "Commentary: While the Met contemplates selling its treasured art, rich trustees sit idle," 14 Feb. 2021 It’s at the center of an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions due to the material’s ubiquity and near inability to degrade. Diana Budds, Curbed, "The Next Generation of Componibili Is Designed to Dissolve," 4 Feb. 2021 Only someone well versed in loneliness—artistic, physical, emotional—could produce such a ruthlessly realistic account of an isolating catastrophe, tending to its false starts and its interruptions, its strange mixture of anxiety and tedium. Alejandro Chacoff, The New Yorker, "The Italian Novelist Who Envisioned a World Without Humanity," 28 Dec. 2020 In other words, who was best and least prepared for the economic catastrophe Americans are now experiencing? Bryan Keogh, The Conversation, "The US economy’s record swings: 4 essential reads," 29 Oct. 2020 Gen Z is facing disproportionately high levels of unemployment and underemployment, with education, careers, and families disrupted by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic catastrophe. Natalie Gontcharova,, "29 First-Time Voters Tell Us Why They’re Going To The Polls," 27 Oct. 2020 At the same time, the coronavirus’s spread (now apparently slowing overall) has led to what looks to be an economic catastrophe. Christian Paz, The Atlantic, "Joe Biden’s Reset Would Start in Latin America," 26 Oct. 2020 Both Meijer and Scholten say the ongoing health fears and economic catastrophe caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are the top issue in the district. Dave Boucher, Detroit Free Press, "More than a name: Peter Meijer faces Hillary Scholten in competitive west Michigan race," 2 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.

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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

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Time Traveler for catastrophe

Time Traveler

The first known use of catastrophe was in 1540

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Last Updated

2 Mar 2021

Cite this Entry

“Catastrophe.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

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More Definitions for catastrophe



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

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