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.

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 Ohio State can’t win at Notre Dame as a third-down catastrophe. Nathan Baird, cleveland, 16 Sep. 2023 The catastrophe has prompted an outpouring of international support, with the United States and several European countries vowing to send aid. Aaron Boxerman, New York Times, 16 Sep. 2023 The scale of the catastrophe in Derna, a city of around 100,000 people, is massive. Lauren Leffer, Scientific American, 15 Sep. 2023 Those same divisions have exacerbated the ongoing disaster: Years of war and political rivalry have laid waste to Libya’s state services and infrastructure, leaving the country severely unprepared to respond to a mass-scale humanitarian catastrophe. Sarah Dadouch, Washington Post, 14 Sep. 2023 These ongoing and anticipated harms to the Great Salt Lake represent not only an economic and environmental catastrophe, but also a violation of the public trust. Leia Larsen, The Salt Lake Tribune, 6 Sep. 2023 That 1903 novella was about a man, John Marcher, who fails to fully live his life because he’s seized by premonitions of catastrophe that never visibly come to pass. Guy Lodge, Variety, 3 Sep. 2023 Tropical Storm Hilary caused $600 million in damage on the West Coast, according to Karen Clark & Co., a leading catastrophe modeling firm. Jacob Bogage The Washington Post, Arkansas Online, 4 Sep. 2023 Myth: The younger generation will prioritize taking the action necessary to avert climate catastrophe. Jay Katsir, The New Yorker, 4 Sep. 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 29 Sep. 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

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