ca·​thar·​sis | \ kə-ˈthär-səs How to pronounce catharsis (audio) \
plural catharses\ kə-​ˈthär-​ˌsēz How to pronounce catharsis (audio) \

Definition of catharsis

1a : purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art
b : a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension
2 : elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression
3 : purgation

Word History of Catharsis and Cathartic

Catharsis and cathartic both trace to the Greek word kathairein, meaning “to cleanse, purge.” Catharsis entered English as a medical term having to do with purging the body—and especially the bowels—of unwanted material. The adjective cathartic entered English with a meaning descriptive of such a physically cleansing purge. It didn’t take long for people to start using these words figuratively in reference to emotional release and spiritual cleansing.

Examples of catharsis in a Sentence

She has learned to have her catharsis, take a deep breath and move on.  … she does not dwell on the negative anymore. — Selena Roberts, New York Times, 24 June 2001 … malevolence is expressed in his decision to absent himself from the courtroom, thereby denying some victims of his torture the catharsis of compelling him to hear their stories of survival. — George F. Will, Newsweek, 25 May 1987 … there's the need for catharsis. If you play it all back a second time, you may wear away some of the pain, as you wear away a record with replaying. — Anatole Broyard, New York Times Book Review, 14 Nov. 1982 As soon as we emerged from the gates of the White House, I became aware of that sea of faces.  … I wanted to cry for them and with them, but it was impossible to permit the catharsis of tears. — Lady Bird Johnson 24 Nov. 1963, in A White House Diary1970 Acting is a means of catharsis for her. Painting is a catharsis for me. See More
Recent Examples on the Web When the United States killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the act brought about a moment of national catharsis. Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 2 Aug. 2022 Ryan Pender, the show’s executive producer, says that these moments of catharsis display what is really driving a person to withstand the discomforts of life in the wild. Frederick Dreier, Outside Online, 29 July 2022 The Maple Leafs aren’t out of it yet, but the sense of coming so close to catharsis and failing yet again was palpable as the Lightning skaters embraced on the Amalie Arena ice. Laine Higgins, WSJ, 13 May 2022 During the pandemic, making artwork was a form of spiritual catharsis for Makover. Brienne Walsh, Forbes, 5 May 2022 Now that the group’s fans knew what to expect, Sunday night’s concert was all about catharsis. Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, 20 Dec. 2021 Several attendees said the rally offered a form of catharsis and portended more intensive organizing and activism in the months ahead. Los Angeles Times, 25 June 2022 Instead, the motives behind the trend were more likely compassion, anger or opportunity for catharsis. Washington Post, 8 Apr. 2022 Chalk it up to the melodies’ dreaminess or the light touches of his lyrics; there’s a catharsis in listening to Augustine croon. Tara Aquino, Rolling Stone, 8 June 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'catharsis.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of catharsis

circa 1775, in the meaning defined at sense 3

History and Etymology for catharsis

New Latin, from Greek katharsis, from kathairein to cleanse, purge, from katharos

Learn More About catharsis

Time Traveler for catharsis

Time Traveler

The first known use of catharsis was circa 1775

See more words from the same year

Dictionary Entries Near catharsis

catharine wheel



See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for catharsis

Last Updated

12 Aug 2022

Cite this Entry

“Catharsis.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 17 Aug. 2022.

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

More Definitions for catharsis


variants: also katharsis \ kə-​ˈthär-​səs How to pronounce catharsis (audio) \
plural catharses also katharses\ -​ˌsēz How to pronounce catharsis (audio) \

Medical Definition of catharsis

1 : purgation
2 : elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression — compare abreaction

More from Merriam-Webster on catharsis

Nglish: Translation of catharsis for Spanish Speakers

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


Test Your Vocabulary

Challenging Words You Should Know

  • hedgehog reading a book
  • Often used to describe “the march of time,” what does inexorable mean?
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!