al·​tru·​ism | \ ˈal-trü-ˌi-zəm How to pronounce altruism (audio) \

Definition of altruism

1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others charitable acts motivated purely by altruism
2 : 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 use 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
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Recent Examples on the Web Ancient Cynics, in a kind of perverse altruism, embraced extreme poverty, the better to credibly assail the complacent with their radical social critique. Daniel Akst, WSJ, "‘Cynicism’ and ‘The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time’ Review: When Nothing Is Good Enough," 2 Sep. 2020 One way to do that is to appeal to a child’s natural sense of kindness and altruism. Heather Greenwood Davis, National Geographic, "Yes, you can get your kids to wear masks. Here's how.," 24 Aug. 2020 You're embraced by a deeper spirit of community and altruism., "Horoscope," 4 Aug. 2020 Epidemics of the past established an ethos of altruism in the U.S. Katherine A. Foss, Smithsonian Magazine, "How Epidemics of the Past Changed the Way Americans Lived," 1 Apr. 2020 Thus alliances, human rights, altruism itself, all these perplex him. Mark Danner, The New York Review of Books, "Moving Backward: Hypocrisy and Human Rights," 3 June 2020 Epidemics of the past established an ethos of altruism in the U.S. During the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, Philadelphians selflessly stepped up to save their city. Katherine A. Foss, Smithsonian Magazine, "How Epidemics of the Past Forced Americans to Promote Health—and Ended Up Improving Life in This Country," 2 Apr. 2020 Responses to Paltrow's attempt at altruism were mixed on her Instagram post. Leah Asmelash, CNN, "Gwyneth Paltrow is auctioning off an Oscars gown for coronavirus relief, a dress she once called 'not Oscars material'," 18 Apr. 2020 Even through his naïveté, to bring a book to what’s essentially a Darwinistic knife fight, maybe in the end love and altruism is really what will win out. Sonaiya Kelley, Los Angeles Times, "Netflix’s class warfare movie ‘The Platform’ has struck a chord. Two economists explain why," 15 Apr. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'altruism.' 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 altruism

1853, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for altruism

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

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Time Traveler for altruism

Time Traveler

The first known use of altruism was in 1853

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Last Updated

10 Sep 2020

Cite this Entry

“Altruism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Sep. 2020.

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More Definitions for altruism


How to pronounce altruism (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of altruism

: feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness

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