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

Motivated by misconceived altruism or tribal loyalty to the Democratic Party, some of the 32 state legislatures (Washington, D.C.’s city council has no say in amending the Constitution) might vote to ratify an amendment ending the electoral college. George F. Will, The Mercury News, "Will: Democrats may change their minds about the National Popular Vote," 29 Aug. 2019 Motivated by misconceived altruism or tribal loyalty to the Democratic Party, some of the 32 state legislatures (Washington, D.C.’s city council has no say in amending the Constitution) might vote to ratify an amendment ending the electoral college. George Will, Twin Cities, "George Will: Democrats may change their malleable minds about the National Popular Vote," 29 Aug. 2019 Consider common appeals to allyship and altruism; such locutions convey a sort of optional quality, a moralistic tone, and unreliable trendiness. Astra Taylor, The New Republic, "One for All," 26 Aug. 2019 As the years passed, evidence poured in for a similar mechanism in humans, and mirror neurons became implicated in a long list of phenomena, including empathy, imitation, altruism and autism spectrum disorder, among others. Raleigh Mcelvery, WIRED, "How the Brain Links Gestures, Perception, and Meaning," 31 Mar. 2019 Virgil wrote philosophically about bees in his Georgics, which many have read as a coded celebration of the civil war that had just concluded, his celebration of bees’ loyalty and altruism reflecting Rome’s new hope. Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic, "Honeyland Is a Stinging Allegory for Man-Made Disaster," 9 Aug. 2019 But the story actually begins long before that — when Oviedo friends wanted to help far-off people affected by a typhoon — and culminates in a mixture of creativity and altruism that united a community. Matthew J. Palm,, "New musical ‘Bold’ is theater with a purpose: Helping foster children," 6 Aug. 2019 The result: Employees were 9.2% more likely to return a wallet with a key than a wallet without one — a sign of altruism, the study authors said. Stephanie Demarco,, "Experiment with ‘lost’ wallets reveals that people are surprisingly honest," 20 June 2019 And is your motivation with JUST Water less about altruism and more about how the earth is in danger? Danielle Kwateng-clark, Teen Vogue, "Jaden Smith On Flint, Michigan and How We Can All Change the World," 9 July 2019

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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Last Updated

15 Sep 2019

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Time Traveler for altruism

The first known use of altruism was in 1853

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More Definitions for altruism



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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What made you want to look up altruism? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to make a temporary encampment

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