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

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 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 But the target only grows more numbingly obvious when a pair of beautiful influencers score a free trip on a luxury yacht that devolves into catastrophe and upends the natural order. David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter, 21 May 2022 Pacing under the sweeping metal roof of an open-air rodeo pavilion on the woodsy St. John’s County fairgrounds, Smith held the gaze of his sparse morning audience with a promise — that when catastrophe struck, his tips could get them home. Christopher Spata, Orlando Sentinel, 21 May 2022 Many of the police records of the investigation, documents that might have revealed the truth of Stanford’s murder, vanished in the catastrophe. Los Angeles Times, 20 May 2022 European regulators and tech companies are not prepared for the coming civil rights catastrophe. Albert Fox Cahn, Wired, 18 May 2022 This catastrophe is unfolding as the pandemic continues to assail health systems, depleting government resources, and as the Federal Reserve and other central banks raise interest rates to choke off inflation. New York Times, 17 May 2022 For babies with medical conditions, as well as older kids and adults whose lives similarly depend on access to specialty nutritional formulas, the situation is nearing catastrophe. Amanda Mull, The Atlantic, 14 May 2022 The tentative settlement comes a little more than 10 months after the catastrophe in the small beachfront town north of Miami. Washington Post, 12 May 2022 The catastrophe in question took place around 252 million years ago. Joshua Hawkins, BGR, 12 May 2022 See More

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.

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

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

Dictionary Entries Near catastrophe



catastrophe theory

See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for catastrophe

Last Updated

25 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Catastrophe.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 25 May. 2022.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More Definitions for catastrophe


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

More from Merriam-Webster on catastrophe

Nglish: Translation of catastrophe for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of catastrophe for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about catastrophe


Test Your Vocabulary

Name That Food

  • a-light
  • Name these cookies!
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

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