ca·​tas·​tro·​phe | \kə-ˈtas-trə-(ˌ)fē \
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 \ adjective
catastrophically \ -​fi-​k(ə-​)lē \ 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

The gestation of his ultimate manner accorded in date and in feeling with the catastrophe of the war. Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, "Giacometti’s Skinny Sublimity," 6 June 2018 Trump turns everything into a culture war The catastrophe in Puerto Rico has a threefold origin. Matthew Yglesias, Vox, "The shocking truth about the Hurricane Maria death toll is our Trump nightmare made real," 30 May 2018 Riley is interested in the human impulses that lead to resistance, rather than those that lead to human catastrophes, even under the worst of circumstances. Vann R. Newkirk Ii, The Atlantic, "Sorry to Bother You Is a Dystopian Send-Up of Dystopias," 13 July 2018 Harvey’s intensified winds before landfall stunned Texas, then its rainfall created a slow-motion catastrophe. Hal Boedeker,, "'Superstorms' sends scary hurricane warning," 21 June 2018 The District Attorney’s Office last week dropped felony charges of attempted arson and risking a catastrophe but said Segin still faces misdemeanor charges of recklessly endangering another person and possessing an instrument of crime. Michael Boren,, "Transgender woman sent to men's prison in Philadelphia: Experience was 'dehumanizing'," 18 June 2018 Again — Caps Nats (@StevenMcD0218) May 28, 2018 When extreme weather causes catastrophe, people tend to divide into camps about the cause. Emily Atkin, The New Republic, "America’s Flooded Future," 30 May 2018 On the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding — what Palestinians call the Nakba (or catastrophe) — hundreds are marching in mostly nonviolent protests in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Dana El Kurd, Washington Post, "On Israel’s 70th anniversary, what does the region think?," 15 May 2018 Once front and center in the global media as a catastrophe on par with Chernobyl, the plant stands today as the site of one of the world’s most complex and expensive engineering projects. William Steel, Ars Technica, "Remediating Fukushima—“When everything goes to hell, you go back to basics”," 11 May 2018

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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Last Updated

11 Nov 2018

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Time Traveler for catastrophe

The first known use of catastrophe was in 1540

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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 \

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 \

Medical Definition of catastrophe 

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

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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).


to clear from alleged fault or guilt

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