al·​tru·​ism ˈal-trü-ˌi-zəm How to pronounce altruism (audio)
: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
charitable acts motivated purely by altruism
: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

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Altruism Has Roots in Latin and French

Altruism refers to a quality possessed by people whose focus is on something other than themselves, and its root reveals the object of those generous tendencies. Altruism derives from the French word autrui, meaning "other people." Autrui, in turn, developed from the Old French term autre, which means "other" and which itself comes from Latin alter, also meaning "other." That Latin source eventually caused a curious thing to happen. Under the influence of alter, the French autrui gave rise to the altrui- of both the French altruisme and the English altruism. The English term has been in service since at least the mid-1800s.

Examples of altruism in a Sentence

A few skimpy corporate pensions were paid, but they were offered as much as departure incentives designed to promote business efficiency as expressions of altruism. W. Andrew Achenbaum, Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2006
Mary may have ample resources and prefer that her share pass to her children who have greater need and are in lower income tax brackets. (The progressive nature of our tax laws often fosters such altruism among family members.) William M. McGovern, Jr. et al., Wills, Trusts and Estates, 1988
And he still chokes up when he tells the story. Even at that young age, he understood that what his aunt was doing for him was the purest act of altruism. Gail Sheehy, New York Times Magazine, 20 Apr. 1986
Recent Examples on the Web Barriers To Investment Pension funds haven’t agreed to the 5.0% target out of altruism. Trevor Clawson, Forbes, 16 Feb. 2024 Twisted altruism, vigilante justice If first novels indicate career trajectory, Jahmal Mayfield has a future in crime fiction. Ira Porter, The Christian Science Monitor, 1 Feb. 2024 The trend is both inspiring and challenging — inspiring in its demonstration of how Black women consistently show up for their communities and challenging because that altruism often comes at a personal cost. Ebony Flake, Essence, 16 Jan. 2024 Tweed provided generously for the Irish and other immigrants, not out of altruism but political expediency. Madeleine Kearns, National Review, 14 Jan. 2024 Why then is no such altruism, compassion, and respect given to our LGBT students, drag queens, Black students and every other minority group that does not fit into DeSantis’ narrow Republican vision? Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Sun Sentinel, 14 Jan. 2024 In 2023, one approach to impact had an Icarus-like rise and fall: effective altruism. Peter Vanham, Fortune, 4 Jan. 2024 Several of OpenAI’s board members have ties to effective altruism, a philosophical movement that has made preventing these threats a top priority. Kevin Roose, New York Times, 21 Nov. 2023 Reagan’s simple line also shaped a backbone of modern politics, an inherent altruism of campaigning that Americans will vote on issues of job security and paychecks more than any other issue. David Bruns, Washington Post, 19 Dec. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'altruism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


French altruisme, from autrui other people, from Old French, oblique case form of autre other, from Latin alter

First Known Use

1853, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of altruism was in 1853


Dictionary Entries Near altruism

Cite this Entry

“Altruism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


al·​tru·​ism ˈal-tru̇-ˌiz-əm How to pronounce altruism (audio)
: unselfish interest in the welfare of others
altruist noun
altruistic adjective
altruistically adverb
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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