pilfer

verb

pil·​fer ˈpil-fər How to pronounce pilfer (audio)
pilfered; pilfering ˈpil-f(ə-)riŋ How to pronounce pilfer (audio)

intransitive verb

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

transitive verb

: steal
especially : to steal in small quantities
pilferable adjective
pilferage noun
pilferer noun
pilferproof adjective

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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.

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

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 Quiros had allegedly funnelled much of it through a variety of shell companies, and back into his own pocket—pilfering fifty million dollars, for example, to pay his taxes and to buy a condominium in Trump Place, in Manhattan, among other things. Sheelah Kolhatkar, The New Yorker, 29 Jan. 2024 Class, cash, and condos have pilfered and transfigured the filthen place that spawned No Wave. Jonathan Rowe, SPIN, 23 Jan. 2024 The script by Saturday Night Live veteran Tina Fey stole from the John Hughes ’80s comedies and later indie hits Clueless and Heathers, pilfering their exposé of high-school cliques and adolescent style. Armond White, National Review, 17 Jan. 2024 There were other forms of pilfering, too, apparently. Charles Bethea, The New Yorker, 26 Nov. 2023 There are numerous Nigerian masterpieces in museums around the world, Rema points out — especially in Britain, pilfered and never returned. Paul Thompson, Rolling Stone, 24 Oct. 2023 With some digging, Foster discovered that stadium officials had twice turned away movers attempting to pilfer 63 cubicles — which cost $400 apiece — from the Rams’ locker room before changing the locks on the doors. Mike Digiovanna, Los Angeles Times, 16 Dec. 2023 The blaze had swept through a government property at 80 Albert Street, a deathtrap of a building where squatters pilfered electricity, built indoor shacks out of cardboard and cooked on paraffin stoves. John Eligon, New York Times, 10 Nov. 2023 That same month, a three-legged bear pilfered some White Claw hard seltzers from a Florida family's outdoor fridge. CBS News, 8 Nov. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'pilfer.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Middle French pelfrer, from pelfre booty

First Known Use

circa 1548, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense

Time Traveler
The first known use of pilfer was circa 1548

Dictionary Entries Near pilfer

Cite this Entry

“Pilfer.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pilfer. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition

pilfer

verb
pil·​fer ˈpil-fər How to pronounce pilfer (audio)
pilfered; pilfering -f(ə-)riŋ How to pronounce pilfer (audio)
: to steal articles of small value or in small amounts
pilferage noun
pilferer noun

Legal Definition

pilfer

intransitive verb
pil·​fer ˈpil-fər How to pronounce pilfer (audio)
: 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
pilferage noun

More from Merriam-Webster on pilfer

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