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

Examples of furtive in a Sentence

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 Public history does not feel as alluring to him as furtive genealogies of violence, dramatized in obstinate orphic repetition from one book to the next: a woman (a redhead, a divorcée, someone love-hungry and secretive) is resurrected and rescued, only to be lost again. Parul Sehgal, The New Yorker, 11 Sep. 2023 Aniela’s furtive research into gender identity in foreign magazines and at an internet café leads to a frustrating odyssey of medical and legal appointments that map out the daunting bureaucratic hurdles standing between any Polish trans person and advanced hormone therapy or surgery. David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter, 8 Sep. 2023 But Politico is already reporting on furtive consultations among Senate Republicans about whether to call an emergency meeting on McConnell’s leadership when the Senate is back in session, next week. Susan B. Glasser, The New Yorker, 31 Aug. 2023 But under President Xi Jinping, whose ideas about governance may shape the world for years to come, the CCP has grown even more furtive. Christopher Walker, Foreign Affairs, 11 July 2023 In fact, the battle over the Declaration of Independence was an epic tale of secession threats, fears of intercolonial bloodshed, and furtive politics engineered to rescue the Middle states from tragically falling into civil war against New England and the Southern states. Time, 3 July 2023 What’s missing this time around is the furtive hush that once came with owning a knockoff. Maura Judkis, Washington Post, 22 Mar. 2023 Apart from a few scenes drawn from Mr. Vincent’s own reporting, such as the 2018 inauguration of a new standard for the kilogram and a furtive outing with a traditionalist British guerrilla who stickers over metric street signs, the text consists of historical synthesis. Timothy Farrington, WSJ, 7 Nov. 2022 More immediately, cast an eye on your needled evergreens for a more pernicious and furtive insect named the bagworm. Washington Post, 7 July 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 26 Sep. 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

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