fur·​tive ˈfər-tiv How to pronounce furtive (audio)
: done in a quiet and secretive way to avoid being noticed : surreptitious
a furtive glance
exchanged furtive smiles
: expressive of stealth : sly
had a furtive look about him
: obtained underhandedly : stolen
furtive gains
furtively adverb
furtiveness noun

Did you know?

Furtive comes from either Latin furtivus or French furtif. The earliest known written uses of furtive are from the early 1600s. When first used in English, furtive meant "done by stealth," and later also came to mean, less commonly, "stolen." Whichever meaning you choose, the word has an elusive ancestry, which is particularly fitting, since a thief must be furtive to avoid getting caught in the act.

Choose the Right Synonym for furtive

secret, covert, stealthy, furtive, clandestine, surreptitious, underhanded mean done without attracting observation.

secret implies concealment on any grounds for any motive.

met at a secret location

covert stresses the fact of not being open or declared.

covert intelligence operations

stealthy suggests taking pains to avoid being seen or heard especially in some misdoing.

the stealthy step of a burglar

furtive implies a sly or cautious stealthiness.

lovers exchanging furtive glances

clandestine implies secrecy usually for an evil, illicit, or unauthorized purpose and often emphasizes the fear of being discovered.

a clandestine meeting of conspirators

surreptitious applies to action or behavior done secretly often with skillful avoidance of detection and in violation of custom, law, or authority.

the surreptitious stockpiling of weapons

underhanded stresses fraud or deception.

an underhanded trick

Example Sentences

This means that they need use only quantum mechanics or only general relativity and can, with a furtive glance, shrug off the barking admonition of the other. Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe, 1999
Fall's pleasures were furtive, risky, short-lived-buckeye fights,  … the endless recipes for the apples Mrs. Railsbeck asked him to fetch from the cobwebbed crate in the basement. Stewart O'Nan, The Names of the Dead, 1996
… it made Shepherd look furtive, wary, hunted—as if the photographer had shot him against his will, in the act of slamming the door. Helen Garner, The First Stone, 1995
He cast a furtive glance in our direction. We exchanged furtive smiles across the table.
Recent Examples on the Web The quality is low but in a way that adds to the furtive, legally dicey energy of Anger’s work. Vulture, 24 May 2023 The Discord leaks have presented a list of questions for the American intelligence community – about how someone in such a niche outfit could have access to some of the nation’s most furtive secrets and why the leak took so long to spot. Noah Robertson, The Christian Science Monitor, 3 May 2023 For now, the only thing that can be said for certain is that Converse was last seen in Ann Arbor, in August 1974, her final, furtive act utterly consistent with how her life might be described: unpredictable and inevitable; opaque and mesmerising; complete and unfinished; and almost unbelievable. Howard Fishman, Rolling Stone, 28 Apr. 2023 Traces of Neanderthal art are likewise furtive. Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books, 27 Apr. 2021 It’s taken me through scores of iterations, furtive late-night pizza texts with other obsessives across the country, dozens of eating excursions (including a two-day, 12-stop tour of Chicago and Milwaukee), bags of flour, pounds of sausage and several gallons of tomato sauce. J. Kenji López-alt, New York Times, 17 Mar. 2023 Employees cast furtive glances at the door or at phones or spend meetings Responding to email or working on unrelated tasks. Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY, 14 Mar. 2023 The closeted teenager visually caresses Adam’s body, casting furtive glances of which Adam may or may not be aware. Odie Henderson, BostonGlobe.com, 15 Feb. 2023 That specifically British brand of cozy romance hits the sweet spots in Augustine Frizzell’s adaptation of a best-selling paperback, albeit via some ridiculous plotting bound to bother anyone not already sold on the joys of rolling hills and furtive glances. Charles Bramesco, Vulture, 25 Aug. 2021 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'furtive.' 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 or Latin; French furtif, from Latin furtivus, from furtum theft, from fur thief, from or akin to Greek phōr thief; akin to Greek pherein to carry — more at bear

First Known Use

1612, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of furtive was in 1612


Dictionary Entries Near furtive

Cite this Entry

“Furtive.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/furtive. Accessed 2 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


fur·​tive ˈfərt-iv How to pronounce furtive (audio)
: done in a sneaky or sly manner
a furtive look
furtively adverb
furtiveness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on furtive

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!