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.

Example Sentences

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 The Wilcoxes are voluble on some subjects—therapy, Buddhism, Judaism, racial identity, altruism, the climate catastrophe—and strangely silent on others. Laura Tanenbaum, The New Republic, 17 May 2023 The premise sounds straightforward: She’s decided to give a kidney to a stranger as an act of altruism. Matthew Jacobs, Vulture, 20 Mar. 2023 In my experience in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors, companies have numerous opportunities to make their altruism effective for now and beyond. Bertina Ceccarelli, Forbes, 27 Dec. 2022 The leading intellectuals of that world, like AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky, wrote for an online forum called Less Wrong, which, like effective altruism, also attracted a community of young people more interested in specific modes of argumentation than politics. Nitasha Tiku, Washington Post, 17 Nov. 2022 Tom Hiddleston relishes exploring redemptive possibilities for the fan-favorite Norse god of mischief (who occasionally flirts with altruism) that he’s played for over a decade in Marvel Studios films and now on Disney Plus. Scott Huver, Variety, 13 Dec. 2021 Many have ties to communities like effective altruism, a philosophical movement to maximize doing good in the world. Nitasha Tiku, Washington Post, 9 Apr. 2023 His mystique was bolstered by his embracing of effective altruism, adding a moral heft to himself and his money-making ventures. Roomy Khan, Forbes, 6 Feb. 2023 Credit to Fox, then, for the altruism of releasing Alert: Missing Persons Unit. Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter, 8 Jan. 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 4 Jun. 2023.

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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