Word of the Day


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


doing work for good causes without getting paid for it

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun volunteerism is a relatively recent one, being first recorded in the 1970s, although a pre-existing meaning referring to the use of volunteers in the armed forces dates from the mid 19th century. It is formed from the noun volunteer, with the suffix -ism.


Volunteerism, which refers to working for good causes without getting paid, is a comparatively recent term, although the practice has existed for a couple of centuries at least. It is predated by a couple of decades by the term voluntarism, which it seems to have superseded to a great degree: there are ten times as many citations for volunteerism as for voluntarism in the huge enTenTen15 corpus. Volunteering is much older than either, dating from the late 17th century when it was chiefly used to refer to voluntary enlistment in the armed forces. While volunteering is generally used these days to refer to unpaid work for some good purpose, volunteerism and voluntarism have slightly different connotations, the -ism suffix indicating something more systematic and organized than simple voluntary work. Indeed, the Macmillan Dictionary entry for voluntarism is labelled Politics, and the definition speaks of ‘reliance on voluntary work and workers, especially in the area of social welfare’. Volunteerism is a recent entry in our Open Dictionary, submitted by a user in Hong Kong last year. You can submit words and phrases that are not already in Macmillan Dictionary to the Open Dictionary here.


Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?
(Martin Luther King, Jr)

Volunteering is so pervasive it’s invisible.
(Susan J Ellis)

Related words

volunteer, voluntary, voluntarism

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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