Word: altruism

Pronunciation: AL-troo-iz-əm

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Remember that dialogue from The Big Bang Theory that I used to demonstrate last week’s vocabulary word? Well, it’s time to learn about the other word that was tripping Penny up.

“Altruism” refers to the theory or practice of putting the well-being of others before one’s own. In other words, “altruism” is the virtue of doing good deeds without expecting any benefits in return, as described in studies of various cultures and religions. The word can be traced back through different languages, from the French noun altruisme; to the Italian adjective altrui “other person”; to the Latin term alteri huic, meaning “to this other”.

In philosophy, “altruism” is the opposite of “egoism”, that is, the view that people’s actions are driven by self-interest. However, some disagree on whether these concepts are mutually exclusive, since doing good for others often comes with the side effect of personal gratification. Interestingly, the term “altruism” is also used in zoology to define the behavior of an animal that benefits others at its own expense (e.g. monkeys that sound alarm calls when predators are near, warning their troop of danger while simultaneously drawing attention to themselves).

Because of the weight it carries as a scientific and/or religious concept, the word seems to me like an even more virtuous form of “selflessness”. While a “selfless” person does good mostly for people closer to them, an “altruistic” person has a natural tendency to put the welfare of others in general before their own. That’s not to say these synonyms can’t be used interchangeably, of course; this is simply my own interpretation. In any case, “altruism” is usually a great character trait for a narrative’s hero, so it may be a good word to know for your writing, especially if you write adventure stories. A truly admirable protagonist is often a selfless one!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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