pil·​fer | \ˈpil-fər \
pilfered; pilfering\ ˈpil-​f(ə-​)riŋ \

Definition of pilfer 

intransitive verb

: steal especially : to steal stealthily in small amounts and often again and again

transitive verb

: steal especially : to steal in small quantities

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Other Words from pilfer

pilferable \ ˈpil-​f(ə-​)rə-​bəl \ adjective
pilferage \ ˈpil-​f(ə-​)rij \ noun
pilferer \ ˈpil-​fər-​ər \ noun
pilferproof \ ˈpil-​fər-​ˌprüf \ adjective

Synonyms for pilfer


appropriate, boost [slang], filch, heist, hook, lift, misappropriate, nick [British slang], nip, pinch, pocket, purloin, rip off, snitch, steal, swipe, thieve

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Choose the Right Synonym for pilfer

steal, pilfer, filch, purloin mean to take from another without right or without detection. steal may apply to any surreptitious taking of something and differs from the other terms by commonly applying to intangibles as well as material things. steal jewels stole a look at the gifts pilfer implies stealing repeatedly in small amounts. pilfered from his employer filch adds a suggestion of snatching quickly and surreptitiously. filched an apple from the tray purloin stresses removing or carrying off for one's own use or purposes. printed a purloined document

The Various Uses of Pilfer

Pilfer is a synonym of steal, but it typically implies a particular kind of stealing. What is pilfered is usually stolen stealthily—furtively, so that no one will notice—in small amounts and often again and again. One might, for example, pilfer cookies from a cookie jar until a plentiful supply has dwindled to nothing. The word is sometimes used for that kind of stealing: the stealthy and gradual stealing of something that isn't worth much anyway:

Money was tight enough that Dickey's family used silverware pilfered from the local Western Sizzlin….
— L. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated 2 Apr. 2012

But it is also used when the stolen things are valuable indeed, and the act of pilfering a serious criminal act:

For generations, scavengers have prowled this city with impunity, pouncing on abandoned properties and light poles to pilfer steel, copper and other metals they could trade for cash at scrapyards. The practice left tens of thousands of buildings so damaged that they could not be restored, turning places like the North End into grim cityscapes that appeared to have been ravaged by a tornado.
— John Eligon, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2015

Pilfer may remind one of a similar also-serious word: pillage. The two words share more than a first syllable; pilfer comes from an old word meaning "booty" (as in, things that are stolen or taken by force, especially during a war) and pillage means "to take things from a place by force especially during a war." But despite their similarities, the words in modern use are very different. Pilfer has long since shed the connotations of violence in its etymological past; what's pilfered is not taken violently. Pillage, on the other hand, remains firmly rooted in violence and especially war; it is not a term you apply when someone's been sneaking cookies from a cookie jar.

Examples of pilfer in a Sentence

She pilfered stamps and paper from work. what sort of person would pilfer lunches from the office refrigerator?

Recent Examples on the Web

The remarks, coming four days after the news broke that Cambridge Analytica pilfered sensitive information from tens of millions of Facebook users, were aimed at restoring public trust in the social media giant. Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY, "Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally speaks on Cambridge Analytica: We need to fix 'breach of trust'," 21 Mar. 2018 And John Houston might have pilfered money while managing his daughter’s career. Graham Ambrose, BostonGlobe.com, "Darkness and light in Whitney Houston documentary," 4 July 2018 In trying to pilfer the kit's prey, the eagle sank its talons into some part of the fox, lifting it up and swinging it back and forth mid-air, Ebi said. Lynsi Burton, Houston Chronicle, "Wildlife photographer catches bald eagle swiping rabbit from baby fox in perfect image," 23 May 2018 After a surprisingly difficult ordeal getting this phone pilfered, someone finally grabbed it. Eric Limer, Popular Mechanics, "When This Stolen Phone Spies on Its Thief, The Results Are Riveting," 16 Dec. 2016 One misguided period close to Bay Staters’ hearts was 19th-century America, when travelers tended to pilfer historic sights, including Plymouth Rock. Diane Daniel, BostonGlobe.com, "Spoons, magnets, rocks: New book looks at the history of souvenirs," 12 June 2018 The operation to pilfer vast caches of data, much of which was then published by WikiLeaks, was believed to have been orchestrated by the highest levels of the Russian government. Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica, "WikiLeaks, Russia, Trump Jr. named in new DNC hacking lawsuit," 20 Apr. 2018 Green herons native to North and Central America pilfer bread from unsuspecting pedestrians and use the morsels to bait fish close to the shore. Katherine J. Wu, Smithsonian, "How Humans Created the Ultimate Superpests," 9 July 2018 Passwords pilfered from those offices could provide a hostile power with an avenue to change or destroy voters’ information. Michael Wines, New York Times, "How West Virginia Is Trying to Build Hacker-Proof Voting," 8 May 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'pilfer.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of pilfer

circa 1548, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense

History and Etymology for pilfer

Middle French pelfrer, from pelfre booty

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Statistics for pilfer

Last Updated

16 Oct 2018

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Time Traveler for pilfer

The first known use of pilfer was circa 1548

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More Definitions for pilfer



English Language Learners Definition of pilfer

: to steal things that are not very valuable or to steal a small amount of something


pil·​fer | \ˈpil-fər \
pilfered; pilfering

Kids Definition of pilfer

: to steal small amounts or articles of small value

pil·​fer | \ˈpil-fər \

Legal Definition of pilfer 

: to steal especially in small amounts and often again and again accused of pilfering from passenger luggage

transitive verb

: to steal or steal from especially in small quantities found pilfering goods from a store he was guarding

Other Words from pilfer

pilferage \ ˈpil-​fə-​rij \ noun

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More from Merriam-Webster on pilfer

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for pilfer

Spanish Central: Translation of pilfer

Nglish: Translation of pilfer for Spanish Speakers

Comments on pilfer

What made you want to look up pilfer? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to clear from alleged fault or guilt

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