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 Though the push-pull between competition and altruism is a common tension in evolutionary biology, her findings did not sit well with world views built on individual dominance. Lorraine Berry, Los Angeles Times, "How a descendant of loggers saved forests, inspired Richard Powers and Amy Adams," 5 May 2021 China’s and Russia’s vaccine diplomacy isn’t driven by altruism, but whose is? Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic, "Here’s How Russia and China Are Helping the U.S.," 30 Mar. 2021 Upcoming works by Xavier Galva, Victor Cervantes Jr. and Robert Lee Leng center on themes of neighborly kindness and urban altruism. New York Times, "5 Things to Do This Weekend," 25 Feb. 2021 The attention spread and became a catalyst for altruism. Nicole Russell, Washington Examiner, "The state vs. Main Street," 22 Apr. 2021 During the pandemic, that reliance on altruism has proved insufficient, as the public’s opportunity and willingness to give were upended. Lauren Caruba, San Antonio Express-News, "'At the brink of a disaster': San Antonio's ongoing blood shortages jeopardize patient care," 15 Apr. 2021 Addressing this is less a matter of altruism than accounting. NBC News, "Pandemic silver lining? Employers start to recognize importance of caregiving benefits," 7 Apr. 2021 The backlash raises questions about whether wealth influences altruism. Alia E. Dastagir, USA TODAY, "Kylie Jenner, the GoFundMe controversy and the psychology of being so 'out of touch'," 23 Mar. 2021 The work, supervised by Rutgers graduate student and Maasai member Dennis Sonkoi, has helped to show that peer-to-peer altruism can benefit an entire population. Rachel Feltman, Popular Science, "Sharing doesn’t make you a sucker. This scientist has the numbers to prove it.," 7 Dec. 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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Learn More about altruism

Time Traveler for altruism

Time Traveler

The first known use of altruism was in 1853

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Statistics for altruism

Last Updated

14 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Altruism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 17 May. 2021.

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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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